Movie of the Week: Murderball

A documentary about Quad Rugby, Murderball follows the paraplegic members of Team USA as they train and compete in international tournaments. The title reeks of violence, but the most violent parts of the film are the stories of how the handicapped players wound up in their wheelchairs. Played on indoor basketball courts, Quad Rugby (called Murderball when it was first invented) does have its share of violence. Players ram their reinforced wheelchairs into each other as they work their way to the goal line. Chairs get knocked over and players fall to the floor; a disconcerting sight, but core to the message of the film.

We learn early on that a paraplegic has some sort of dysfunction in every limb, and is not necessarily a limbless body, although one of the players has no legs and is missing his arms from the elbow down. We see hands that won’t grip struggle to take off tennis shoes and knobby elbows pour juice into a glass. Simple actions, like putting on a pair of pants, require patience and effort. Things we take for granted turn out to be a challenge for these handicapped men, who are independent despite their disabilities.

Directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro treat their subject with respect and humor and avoid any form of sentimentality. They wisely leave it to the audience to recognize the tragedies that are part of every story and instead emphasize the lives these men lead. We see the men joke together, making fun of themselves without being bitter. We listen to them talk about women and sex. We see them interact with their families. Not all of them are likable; some are people we’d rather not know. The thing that brings these men together is not their handicaps, but their determination to push themselves and to do whatever they can despite their physical limitations.

The film is blunt and straightforward, and answers many questions about what life is like for people in wheel chairs. And the key word is people. The depiction of the team members as human beings is so strong that it is not long before you no longer see the chair, no longer notice the bent fingers or missing hands. All you see is the eyes, all you hear is the voice, and you learn that everyone is handicapped in some way. The challenge to us is to live life as fully as possible, despite our limitations, and the men in this film show us how much can be done with much less than most of us have.

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