Murderball was the original name for the sport now called “quadriplegic rugby,” or “quad rugby.” “It used to be called ‘murderball,’” says Mark Zupan, murderballer extraordinaire, “but you can’t really market ‘murderball’ to corporate sponsors.”
The game itself is pretty simple. Teams are made up of four players with a total of 8 “points” of mobility among them. Any team bringing the ball across the goal line scores a point. “You have to dribble the ball or pass to a teammate once every ten seconds,” explains one murderballer. “But other than that it’s ‘kill the man with the ball.’”
R for language, sexual content
The documentary covers a lot of ground in 88 minutes. It introduces us to the sport. It introduces us to quadriplegics in general, answering questions able-bodied people always ask (including the ones about sex). It introduces us to some of the players. And finally, it tells the story of the 2004 season, in which the Americans hope to take the title back from the Canadians.
A worse documentary would simply follow team USA, hoping that the story arc would occur naturally. But Murderball is an excellent documentary. It was obviously sculpted by smart editors from a huge amount of footage. In addition to the story of Team USA’s season, there is a motive for the main story line, two major subplots, and several minor subplots.
The Joe Soares Story
Team USA had won every murderball championship ever held. Recently, the victories came thanks to the great play of Joe Soares (pronounced like “Suarez.”). One year, Soares didn’t make the cut, so he left in a huff to coach Team Canada. Under his direction, Canada beat the US in the championships. So now, Team USA is looking to win the trophy back, not just for pride, but as a sort of punishment for Soares, who many US players call Benedict Arnold.
The best subplot, one that almost seems too good to be true, is the salvation of Soares. The filmmakers introduce him with a freeze frame and a title card just after he has yelled “fuck you, bitch” at some hapless usher. Most documentarians wouldn’t dare to choose such an unfortunate moment to introduce a subject to an audience. But directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro did, and they back it up with ever more footage of Soares behaving badly.
Midway through the film, I almost couldn’t believe that the cameras were invited to Joe’s anniversary dinner with his wife. We go along with them to the restaurant, where Joe is all business, oblivious to the romance of the situation, and oblivious to his wife.
Perhaps worst of all is the way Soares treats his son. He is openly disappointed in him for being too bookish, for not being enough of a jock. Even the people in Joe’s family acknowledge that he doesn’t treat his son very well.
As in the best scripted dramas, Joe does change by the end of the movie. His family notices the difference, and more amazingly, the cameras pick up on it as well. Joe’s story is almost good enough to be the subject of its own movie.
The other key player in Murderball is Mark Zupan, or “Z.” Like Joe, Mark is a macho testosterone machine. He says of Soares that he wouldn’t piss on him if he were on fire.
Z’s story is more backward-looking than Joe’s. In pieces, we learn how Z became a quadriplegic. He was riding in a pickup truck driven by a drunk friend. There was an accident and Z was thrown. He spent 14 hours hanging by a tree in a canal of running water (a fact he has repeated so often it’s become a mantra).
The filmmakers tracked down this driver during a ten-year high school reunion. We learn from interviews with classmates that Z and the driver haven’t spoken for ten years. As you watch, it seems inevitable that the two will meet again before the movie is over.
Beaten by Velcro
A third story is Keith’s. Keith used to do motocross. He became a quadriplegic after a motorcycle crash. The filmmakers track Keith down even before he’s heard of the quad rugby, before he’s even finished physical therapy. They seem to know that Keith is going to love the sport, and they want to be there when he finds out about it.
But before we get to Keith’s exposure to murderball, the filmmakers tell his story of physical therapy and rehabilitation. His story gives the audience a sense of what it’s like to lose functionality in your body. Maybe the most effective of these scenes is one in which Keith tries to take off his own shoe, but is defeated by the velcro holding it on.
The main story (about Team USA’s hope for a comeback) is almost moot. It is the freeway that keeps the movie speeding along, and it gives the movie direction and a place to return to, but the real points of interest are on the side roads along the way.
Rubin and Shapiro clearly shot a lot of footage, hoping they’d find a story in the editing. They didn’t just find one, they found many. These real stories of human drama — containing a range of human behavior from ugly to noble — are more impressive than any film about a comeback season.
That Rubin and Shapiro would look for these stories and that editors Conor O’Neill and Geoffrey Richman could find them in the footage is an amazing feat, and a testament to their dedication and talent as filmmakers.