It’s a fascinating thought I had going into Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. I began to worry that a straightforward tale may not be playing to the director’s strengths. The reason being that his masterpiece The Fountain was still in my head and since he didn’t have writing credit here, my trepidation increased. It wasn’t until the end credits that I recalled Requiem For a Dream being an adaptation and his debut π being pretty grounded in reality despite its surrealistic tendencies. So in actuality, the guy had only made one non-straightforward film, and all to immense success, at least in my eyes. Whether his planned RoboCop retooling can be a victory, (I think his visual style should do it justice), remains to be seen, but as of now, the guy is four for four. Not only does Mickey Rourke own the screen every second of the movie, but Aronofsky lends just the right amount of his stamp on the proceedings, creating a definite top ten inclusion for my end of year list and, by far, the best film I had seen at the festival.
The story deals with an aging professional wrestler, a man that was a champion and idol in his heyday. Beaten and battered, Randy “The Ram” Robinson finds himself doing small venues on the weekends, trying to relive past glory and entertain the fans still out there, while working at a grocery store during the week. Not having stopped with the working out, he also continues to take any drugs necessary to keep his physique as well as numb the pain of what ails him. Money is tight, the camps’ landlord locks him out of his trailer; family is non-existent, his daughter wants nothing to do with him; and the only real human interaction he has is from a stripper he pays more for an ear to talk than for the lapdances. The Ram remembers the past—an old action figure of himself stands on his van’s dash—and does his best to keep it in the front of his mind. A wonderful example comes when he yells out his trailer to a neighborhood kid; asking if wants to play Nintendo. The two play a boxing game, Robinson of course as himself, while the boy talks about the new Call of Duty game coming out on Playstations, et al. This gap in culture and reality never hits him hard, though, as he loves the decade that built him too much.
The Ram and Cassidy, (Marisa Tomei’s stripper, showing off her sexy body once more this year—has nudity become a prerequisite for casting her now?), are definitely kindred spirits, coming out of that decade. Both are doing what they need to survive, she dancing to support her son and he working at a shopping mart to stay afloat enough to waste weekends on the local wrestling circuit, hanging with the guys and doing what he loves. Only these two would get overly excited when the 80s tunes start blaring out a bar’s speakers, recalling a time when life must have been so much easier.
It is a heart attack that finally wakes Rourke’s character from his long slumber of indifference and living without consequence. With a masterstroke of subtlety, Aronofsky begins to show his hand at this point. We begin to look around the locales The Ram visits. An autograph session is one example, rather than like the beginning, watching two enthusiastic fans get his signature and talk to each other about how nice a guy he is, we now watch a pan across the room at those selling their John Hancocks. Some of the wrestlers are older than he, and others not, however, they all have one thing in common—a slow dismantling of their bodies from the hard, fast lifestyle they lived. We see canes, wheelchairs, sorrow, and pain etched in every face. The Ram finally realizes the risk he takes each time he steps in that ring and decides to retool his life for the future by attempting to rekindle a relationship with his daughter, a nice performance from Evan Rachel Wood; maybe start one with Cassidy, for real, not at the club; and take an invested interest at making a career out of the grocery store gig.
Robinson is willing to leave it all behind. The transition culminates into a scene with the camera following closely behind him as he walks through the backroom before entering the deli counter. With music playing and cheering slowly reaching a crescendo, the comparison to his entrance at a wrestling match is both fitting and ironic. This then leads to a nice scene as he begins to get comfortable behind the counter, riffing with the customers and even pretending to quarterback a container of salad to a shopper. It’s a fun moment and helps establish a feeling that it could all be working out for him.
The story is not that simple, though. What really hit home for me was the absolute frankness and unsentimental tone The Wrestler truly portrays. A great line comes with Rourke in the ring, about to fight, despite someone telling him he doesn’t have to get hurt; he can stop. The Ram just looks back and says, “I only get hurt out there,” pointing to the outside world. That ring is his safe haven, the one place he is loved unconditionally by fans and peers alike, the ropes serving as walls against the prejudices, looks, and pain awaiting him out in the real world. He is a wrestler to the bone, expressed earlier with a viciously orchestrated battle involving tables, staple guns, and barbed wire. The entire film is really just a slice of life following The Ram around as he figures out the path that works for him. Sometimes the costume is the real person—just ask Superman—and to go back to being Robin Randinski becomes too much to handle.
It’s a performance worthy of award and a tale succeeding on all counts. Aronofsky is not shy to work some magic, nor afraid to let the story take control when necessary. All the glamour and celebrity is there along with the flip side of the coin when gravity kicks in. An amazing experience to be sure, you won’t want to get up at its conclusion, (the wonderful new Bruce Springsteen song definitely helps this fact), instead staying to contemplate what has happened and what might happen, as the filmmakers throw a question mark at you. Whether Randy “The Ram” Robinson is content, we will never know, but one thing we do is that he lived without regret. It may not have all turned out the way he wanted, but in the end he a man that will not, that cannot, change. And he doesn’t have to.
The Wrestler 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival