Much like Rachel Getting Married, The Wrestler was another film from 2008 that generated a huge amount of hype because of it being touted as Mickey Rourke’s ‘comeback’ film and a serious contender for a Best Actor (Rourke) and Actress (Marisa Tomei) Oscar wins.
Neither actor won a bald statue, but the hype, just as for Rachel, raised audience expectations, with most moviegoers perhaps expecting a film with a lot of yelling, crying, and tearing.
The Wrestler is a very low-key drama about an old ‘piece of meat,’ Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, a man unable to let go of the audience roar – the addictive element in wrestling that helped destroy his relationship with daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), and ravaged his body into a beat up vessel held together with stitches and glue.
Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay doesn’t offer anything new in terms of reinventing a pretty basic storyline, but whether it was present in the script or was developed by director Darren Aronofsky with actor Rourke, what makes the film are the restrained performances and nuances that redraw archetypal characters into subjects captured in a fly-on-the-wall docu-drama.
The locations are grimy working class locales photographed in the chill of winter, and excepting scenes where stripper Cassidy (Tomei) is at work, everyone’s clothes and makeup are dressed down, and anything that sparkles seems cheesy and cheap. The Ram looks like a physical train wreck, and there’s a lot of parallels between Rourke’s own life as a former baby-faced star whose face and body were ravaged by a move to boxing, and playing a has-been wrestling phenomenon living alone, and taking whatever gigs pay the rent.
Perhaps the nadir for The Ram is when he accepts a horrible bout where he’s shot with a staple gun, rolled onto broken glass, and sliced with barbed wire – elements that satisfy the dim audience, but have nothing to do with a real sport involving hand-to-hand combat. It’s an ugly carny show, and it’s sad to see an athlete offering up his own blood for an event of no historical significance or impact.
The filmmakers don’t present any particular views on wrestling’s theatrics, but perhaps through The Ram, one senses a subtle questioning of why the sport has evolved into a show involving choreography, props, and backyard sadism.
Even more potent is a scene in a Legion Hall where a handful of fans stop by for autographs and pictures of old timers. For The Ram, his injuries are mostly internal, but he’s clearly upset as he scans his chewed up and greying mates: one sports a fake leg, another a bladder pouch, and another slumped back in a wheelchair – ailments that have permanently ended the men’s careers as wrestlers, and portents of what can happen to The Ram if he goes back into the ring after recently suffering a major heart attack.
The script’s sentimental moments are performed quietly and briskly, and where some might be waiting for a big yelling scene, the film’s real power comes from watching the characters react to their unhappy lives and make mistakes and choices they know will have grievous consequences. As the bad decisions and humiliations continue, the tragedy in the final act – which some might also see as a natural ending, if not a victorious one for a doomed man – is devastating.
This is of course if one warms up to The Ram, because he’s a character that always means, well but as his daughter tells him point blank, he’s also a career fuck-up, and the only family willing to take him are young wrestlers who look up to him, colleagues who share his professionalism, and the Legion Hall where he’s recognized; even the kids in the trailer park he calls home have started to distance themselves from the friendly giant next door.
The Wrestler was a labour of love for director Aronofsky and actor Rourke, and it’s a shame neither chose to participate in any special edition DVD (unless this is the first of a DVD double-dip). Besides a music video for Bruce Springsteen’s theme song, there’s nothing else, but maybe without all the standard candy, the can sink as a fine little
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan