The Wrestler (2008)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

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There is little attempt at realism in the world of wrestling, but there certainly is in The Wrestler.  The sport is one of contrived storylines, cartoonishly large and vibrant characters (Hulk Hogan, for example) and a series of carefully choreographed stunts.  It’s all quite absurd, but we’re given an intimate glimpse behind the curtain, into the world of these stuntmen, actors and haunted heroes.  These are men who are worshipped and yet struggle to survive.  Though the show is mostly an illusion, the pain is real, and The Wrestler is a documentary-like look into the world of one man, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, in the twilight of his career.

As “The Ram,” Mickey Rourke embodies his character in a way not many actors can.  He is Randy, just as Marlon Brando is Stanley Kowalski or Daniel Day-Lewis is any of the characters he plays.  Part of this is because of Rourkey’s physical presence.  He’s large, bulky, with long blond Hulk Hogan hair.  Rourke doesn’t stand in the light and hit the marks.  Instead, where he goes, the camera goes, following Randy down hallways and cramped in close quarters with him.

Aronofsky sought a documentary-like approach to this film, and he worked with cinematographer Maryse Alberti to shoot the whole thing handheld on 16 mm and with no blocking and occasionally minimal light.  There is a certain unpredictability to Randy’s movements, and the result is a grounded, de-sensationalized look into his world.

The movie opens with a look at the prime of Randy’s career, some twenty or so years ago before the film begins.  We then follow Randy down a hall, into a match, but it’s a while before we see his face.  Instead we just see the vague characteristics which make him stand out from the rest, his frame and his hair.  Like his fans, we see him as a presence, as some kind of myth, and it’s a few minutes before we finally see his face, one scarred and worn down.

Randy wrestles in small rooms not made for wrestling (in one scene in a converted dining room there is a chandelier hanging precariously above the ring) for small but devoted crowds.  They’re enthusiastic, but it borders on deranged.  The crowd cheers for those contrived storylines but even more so for the blunt violence.  There is little nuance in the wrestlers’ performance.  One of them hits the other, stands and cheers, and then the other knocks him down.  It’s about the force, the comeuppances, someone getting what they deserve.

Before and after these matches, Randy and the other wrestlers demonstrate a heartwarming fraternity with each other.  They’re all in this together, they understand the pain and the commitment that has gotten them here.  They discuss the upcoming ‘fight,’ what moves to pull, and they describe it casually, just another day on the job.

At home Randy is locked out of his trailer for not paying rent on time, he is playful with the neighborhood kids (making us empathize with him), he works at a deli, and he has some kind of relationship with a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), though it’s unclear how honest it is.  They have a long, thoughtful conversation, and then he pays her $60.

When Randy suffers a heart attack after a particularly brutal fight, he is told he must retire, and most of the film is concerned with him finding a place in this life outside of the ring.  He turns to Cassidy for comfort who tells him to turn to family.  The only family he has is a daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) who wants nothing to do with him.

As the story progresses, both of these women in Randy’s life begin to see what the audience sees, the sensitive, thoughtful soul under the gruff exterior.  He begins to bond with his daughter and develop a possible romance with Cassidy.  Still, things don’t come easy, and we’re made to understand how Randy has gotten himself in trouble in the past.

After Cassidy rejects him one night he goes on a bender and subsequently misses a dinner date with his daughter.  He goes to apologize, but she’s at her wit’s end and never wants to see him again.  She never does.

Randy decides it’s time to risk whatever he has left and go back in the ring for what may be his final fight.  The world on the outside has no time for him, and all he has left is his legend and the fervor he inspires in the crowds that watch him fight.

In his last fight, Randy struggles to stay on his feet, though he’s still “winning” because that’s what the narrative between the two wrestlers has in store.  As Randy prepares for his final move, leaping off the ropes onto his opponent, he flies off screen in a final shot meant to make you wonder if he’s about to die.

The Wrestler is a brutal character study of a man both hurt by and addicted to the rush of his sport.  It doesn’t matter that wrestling is fake because the pain is real.  Randy suffers for what he does because the glory was once enough to make the journey worth it.  Frightening as it is, I can’t help but see Randy as something like a long-retired football player, and with what we know about head injuries, CTE and football in general, The Wrestler feels like the type of movie you should make your kid watch before putting on the pads.

As a story, The Wrestler hits many of the familiar beats.  We meet a man in his element, watch his ‘element’ be taken from him and then see how he survives.  This could be one of those stories about someone who loses the ability to walk and must find a way to continue living.  Those stories are typically life-affirming, showing the strength of the human spirit and what we can accomplish, but The Wrestler is different.

Randy is someone we want to see win.  He is well-liked by the people he works with, he’s empathetic, and he shows signs of light, that he can make this third act of his life work.  There is a scene in which Randy works behind the deli counter, for the first time working face-to-face with customers, and he shows a certain talent in performing for the crowd, much as he did in the ring.  The moment actually begins with a shot following Randy through the halls while the crowd cheers, as if he’s going into a fight.  It’s all about performance, and Randy knows how to perform.

But then things start to go wrong as Randy’s bad habits infect the personal relationships in his life.  Suddenly he’s miserable to be around, and he feels hopeless.  The Wrestler shows that things don’t always end well.  Any brief hope is suddenly quashed, and Randy believes he has nothing outside of the ring.

The Wrestler is about fading glory, I suppose.  There’s a small moment in the middle of the film in which Randy goes to meet Cassidy, but before he arrives at the strip club, we follow Cassidy around as her attempts to connect with various customers are rebuffed.  You can see how demoralized this makes her, and the implication is that she’s aging out of this line of work, just as Randy is in his.

We empathize with Randy and Cassidy not just because they’re good people (he’s good with kids, she has a kid), but because they’re made to feel their own mortality.  They know the best days are behind them, and now they’re just trying to survive.  In the end, Randy doesn’t.

Up Next: Suspicion (1941), The Ides of March (2011), The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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