Movie review: In this powerful documentary, a devoted family man from Kent struggles with an addiction to the mixed-martial-arts sport of cage fighting that sunders his marriage, devastates his kids and damages his health. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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From the evidence in “The Cage Fighter,” Joe Carman, the subject of this documentary, is a good man. A Kent resident and boilermaker with the Washington State Ferries system (he’s shown going aboard a vessel at Colman Dock), he’s a loving father of four young daughters who love him deeply in return. The mutual affection is apparent in the natural warmth of the interactions between him and his kids in scenes throughout the picture.

Yet he was also, at least during the 3 ½ years director Jeff Unay spent filming Joe and his family, a deeply troubled man. His troubles reduce his daughters and wife, Nori, who is battling a serious illness, to despair and tears. The source of their sorrows is there in the title. Joe loves his family, but he loves the mixed-martial-arts sport of cage fighting at least as much. Loves it so much that it sunders his marriage, devastates his girls and damages his health. He tells a doctor of worrisome dizziness he experiences. In one scene, he collapses. A daughter says, “I don’t want you to be 45 and in a wheelchair.” He’s 40.

He can’t free himself from a desperate desire to fight, to prove himself to himself in the cage.

Carman says he is proud of his family but he feels most confident in himself “when I’m fighting.”

Time and again, he promises his loved ones he will quit. Time and again, he breaks those promises. He’s addicted. He knows it. It tears him up.

Thanks to the extraordinary access Joe and his family granted to Unay, the pain comes through seemingly unfiltered. The anguish is so raw and the sorrow so intense that the viewer feels like a voyeur. The kinds of intimate private matters on view in “Cage Fighter” give you a feeling that it’s somehow wrong that such stuff should be exposed to outsiders.

Toward the end, sitting at a bar talking with a younger rival who had badly beaten him once in a bout, Joe asks: “When do you know when you’re done? When do you call it?”

That question hangs over “The Cage Fighter” like a dark cloud. At its core, the picture is about Joe’s struggle to arrive at an answer that will give him and his loved ones a measure of peace.


The Cage Fighter,” a documentary directed by Jeff Unay. 80 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains language, fighting sequences, mature content). Northwest Film Forum. Unay will be participating in post-screening Q&As on Feb. 8, 9 and 10.