The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)


It’s been called Mickey Rourke’s big comeback role, his resurrection as an actor after years spent in professional and personal purgatory.  I’m in no position to say whether the role of Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a return to form for Rourke, because frankly I’m just not familiar with his earlier work, neither from when he was a well-regarded actor in the 80s nor in the 90s when he returned to boxing and made one ill-advised acting decision after another (“90s sucked,” his Randy tells Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) over beers.  Indeed).  So I can only take critics’ or Mickey Rourke fans’ word for it that this is the comeback performance being hyped all over town.  Well shit, it certainly feels like a comeback performance.  Not just because it’s a great performance from an actor who hasn’t done much in a while (because it is a great performance, one that might go down as one of the seminal performances of this young century), but because this portrait of Randy the Ram embodies just about every aspect of a comeback – a fall from grace and a rise from the ashes, complete with layer upon layer of pain, both physical and emotional, being exerted on this man from a society that’s rejected him, and from himself.  It’s remarkable how the story of a broken-down man’s rise from the abyss avoids almost every cliché of the sports movie or the overcoming-adversity movie.  I never knew such an oft-used formula could be so natural, and it’s all thanks to, yes, the professional resurrection of Mickey Rourke.

Pro wrestling’s probably one of the dumbest things ever invented.  I thought that for years before seeing Darren Aronofsky’s movie, and I still think that after seeing the movie.  Just the thought of ravenous men of the lowest common denominator rooting for so-called wrestlers who aren’t even fighting an actual fight and choreograph every punch, chair slam, and even fight outcome, is just fucking retarded.  I love sports, I love movies, but when they mix, the result is most often a clichéd, predictable, boring shit-fest.  So who knew that Darren Aronofsky could buck that trend with a movie about, of all things, a fake sport?  Actually, now I know better than to use the word “fake” so freely.  The fight’s staged, the “winner” of the fight is decided long before the so-called combatants enter the ring, and even some of the punches are fake, but some things, like a staple gun in the bicep or a cut on the eyelid or being thrown from the ring into the crowd or beating the shit out of an opponent with a prosthetic leg, just can’t be faked.  It’s still stupid as hell, but at least I know now that this shit hurts.  I’m not sure how much of Mickey Rourke’s performance in the ring was real, how many of the stunts were actually done by him, how much of a beating he himself took (and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a lot – the man’s not young anymore, but boy is he still ripped), but hell, I was convinced that there’s nothing fake about all the blood and body aches and beatings that these wrestlers take after seeing Randy the Ram putting himself through the emotional and physical grinder.  Wrestling’s still stupid, but for the Ram and his fans, it’s still a way of life.  The fans dig the sheer brutality, and Randy knows how to oblige them.  In the ring, the Ram and his opponents are like animals, mortal enemies bent on the other’s destruction, but backstage, we get a glimpse of the fascinating camaraderie between the wrestlers as they agree on how the upcoming fight’s gonna go down, sell each other ‘roids like it’s candy, and the “loser” of a fight gives the “winner” a heap of praise and a pat on the back for another show-stopping performance.  Even while hitting each other with folding chairs and throwing each other into barbed wire, it’s just another day at the office, and Aronofsky’s miminalist style, taking us around every makeshift dressing room in various union halls and high schools and these wrestlers’ (co-workers’) preparations with documentary-like detail, gives a semblance of reality to a form of entertainment that’s so often called fake.  Could Aronofsky and his writer, Robert Siegel, have laid off the over-emphasis on Randy’s moral quandary of wrestling vs. health maintenance a little?  Sure.  Scenes like the one where Randy observes the sad state of other retired wrestlers at an autograph signing with quiet dread and horror overdoes it a little, but even then, to see what becomes of these ‘roided out entertainers in a “fake” sport, is shocking and disturbing nonetheless.

What Mickey Rourke does in the ring as Randy the Ram is brutally physical and tough to watch, both during the fights and during post-fight touch-ups when medics sew him up, remove the staples from his back, and all that yummy stuff.  His wounds, his punches, his winces of pain, and every drop of sweat on his face, drool dripping down his chin, and vomit on the floor are palpable and a testament to Mickey Rourke maintaining the sheer physical ability to do that stuff even now, past the age of 50.  What he does as the Wrestler is physically demanding and, frankly, devastating to watch, but what he does outside the ring as a has-been wrestler trying to survive in a world that’s nearly forgotten about his former glory is just as devastating.  Rourke pulls no punches, lays everything on the table with his bruised and battered body in the ring, and he lays everything on the table again outside the ring.  His performance as Randy the Ram is an incredibly vulnerable, open, and brutally honest one.  So much of “The Wrestler” just follows Randy through his daily life as he tries to occupy himself in his trailer after suffering a heart attack, or trying to make the best of his new job behind the deli counter, or trying to woo Cassidy as the strip joint, making small talk while she gives him a lap dance.  His scarred and worn-down face, his hunched-over gait, his unruly hair, his deep, tired voice, Mickey Rourke as Randy defines world-weary.  He’s tired of being locked out of his trailer until he pays the rent, tired of being too awkward around Cassidy, tired of making the low-pay wrestling circuit before crowds of mere hundreds in high school gymnasiums…but he makes do, because he doesn’t know any other way to live.  It all comes to a head, though, when Randy tries to reconcile with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).  She wants nothing to do with him (and probably rightfully so…we only get subtle hints of how their relationship got to the strained point it’s gotten to, but you can just tell that these two have been through hell), but once his heart attack gives him an ultimatum that the only livelihood he knows isn’t gonna cut it anymore, he sees her as his last chance to be relevant to somebody in the world.  “I’m an old broken down piece of meat and I deserve to be all alone,” he confesses to her on the boardwalk he used to take her to years before.  “I just don’t want you to hate me.”  Here’s the point in almost any other rise-from-the-ashes movie where the flawed hero makes his teary confession, breaks down and later rises up and makes something of himself.  But not Mickey Rourke, and not in this movie.  In a confessional scene that should be clichéd, not for a second does Rourke overdo it, not for a second does he get too emotional or pander to the audience for sympathy.  As his daughter regards this broken husk of a man for the first time in years, he tries and fails to hold back the tears, just barely tearing up as his voice wavers and he can barely hold it together – but does.  I imagine this will be the brief snippet of a scene shown when Rourke’s name is called as one of the five Best Actor nominees on Oscar night (and if there’s any justice, the scene shown moments before Rourke ascends the stage to accept his trophy), but it’s so far from the typical Oscar bait scene where the hero breaks down in tears and makes his powerful confession.  This moment for the Ram was real, and genuine, and probably as painful for him as any beating we see him take in the wrestling ring, if not more so.

“The Wrestler” is a story about finding fame, losing it, and not regaining that former glory, but trying to.  And not just for Randy, because we see throughout the movie a nice little symmetry in the stories of Randy and Cassidy – two people who aren’t young anymore, but who’s livelihoods (wrestling and stripping) depend on at least the illusion of youth and vitality, and how they’re coping with the loss of that youth.  When he’s not wrestling, Randy has to deal with life in a crappy trailer, a crappy supermarket job, and his cold and distant daughter, while Cassidy has to deal with her young son and her feelings for Randy, a customer she isn’t allowed to get involved with.  They’re both trying to juggle their messy personal lives and their, well, just as messy professional lives, even down to their professional vs. real names (Cassidy/Pam and Randy/Robin).  Through the subdued (well, at least when Mickey Rourke’s not in the ring), method-esque, and great performances by Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei and the movie’s gritty realism with the handheld camera and unapologetic focus on wrestling’s physical toll on Randy’s body, Randy and Cassidy’s (or rather, Robin and Pam’s) search for a meaningful existence avoids cinematic cliché and feels real.  

Yes, it even feels real in the midst of Randy’s big rematch against his old so-called arch nemesis, the Ayatollah.  This is where you’d expect Randy to have his big Rocky vs. Apollo Creed, La Motta vs. Sugar Ray Robinson, Fast Eddie Felson vs. Minnesota Fats emotional comeback.  And all the ingredients of the oft-repeated comeback/rematch formula are there, with the big entrance to Guns ‘n Roses, Randy’s speech (which will bring tears to your eyes if you consider yourself a human being), struggling more with his own weaknesses than with his adversary, and the dramatic build-up, complete with musical flourish, to his signature RamJam.  This whole thing is built up as the Ram’s big return to glory, one last moment in the sun, but in reality, it’s all just…sad.  He’s not making this big comeback because he wants to, but because he has to, because it’s all he knows.  He has no choice but to return to this way of life that his personal demons, his ‘roided out body, and his weak heart beg him to stay away from.  The spectacle, the pomp and circumstance of the wrestling ring where Randy the Ram is idolized are teasing us, because we know that it’s the Ram, not Randy, that they’re cheering, and all the cheering in the world won’t solve his problems, but only get him through the day with a paltry paycheck (we can only hope he’s that lucky, though).  Quite the contrast between how exciting Aronofsky makes the big fight and the reality of it, where hundreds are cheering the Ram on, but Randy, the man, attracts the admiration of no one.  “The only place I get hurt is out there,” he tells Pam before the big fight, pointing to the big scary world beyond the ring.  “The world don’t give a shit about me.  You hear them?  This is where I belong.”  What a profound thing for an old, broken down piece of meat to say!


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