It had been a while since I saw Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler at the Asheville Film Festival, and since I was armed with an awards screener, I decided it was only fair to watch it a second time. I had liked it well enough when I first saw it—even while admitting that it wasn’t exactly the sort of movie that normally appeals to me—but I hadn’t been exactly blown away by it. Seeing it again, I’m still a little shy of blown away, but I admired its accomplishments considerably more—both those of Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke. Indeed, if Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson weren’t up against Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk, I’d be in Rourke’s corner for best actor of 2008. As it is, a Rourke win wouldn’t upset me.
For those of you who are out of the loop in such matters, The Wrestler is the film that marks the comeback for Mickey Rourke—the film with which Aranofsky promised him a shot at an Oscar if the notoriously difficult actor would trust him completely and do exactly what he was told. It would appear as if this paid off. Much has been written about the parallels between Rourke’s life and that of his character Randy Robinson—maybe too much. Though I think it’s certainly reasonable to say that Rourke’s “washed-up” acting career clearly informs his portrayal of the washed-up wrestler. The circumstances, however, are hardly identical, and I don’t for a moment buy the performance as autobiographical, even if both actor and character are being carried along to some extent by ‘80s nostalgia. (I suspect Rourke knows this, while I doubt it would have occurred to Randy, who has simply never left that decade.)
Aranofsky’s film follows the down-and-almost-out wrestler through a series of demeaning situations that are never as grim as they might be thanks to the basic humanity of the observations and the character. Using a genuine cinema verité documentary approach (in other words, Aranofsky’s camera is handheld, but he doesn’t make a shaky-cam show of it), The Wrestler actually manages to come across as reality—or something very close to it. It rarely feels contrived—even at moments that veer toward the melodramatic. The slightly flat-footed encounters between Randy and his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Even Rachel Wood), are close to clichéd, but are rescued by such touches as a charming father-daughter waltz in a condemned pavilion and the film’s refusal to go for easy sentiment. What sentiment is in The Wrestler is fought for and is rarely more than tenuous.
At bottom, the film is the story of a man who has allowed himself to be completely defined by his profession, which in this case is professional wrestling. When fashions change, time passes, age increases and health deteriorates, Randy—who has obviously spent every nickel he ever earned and probably beyond that—has nothing left. His attempts to reach out to his daughter and his “personal” lap dancer, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), are limned with pathos precisely because Randy doesn’t ask for sympathy. He’s Randy “The Ram” and he doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know how because the only real love he understands is the love of the audience. That’s clear in the film’s happiest and most human scene—where he works himself up into approaching his job in a grocery-store deli as if he were performing for a crowd of wrestling fans. Aranofsky shoots the scene as if he’s following the champ from backstage into the ring—and then hands the job over to Rourke and the charisma that originally made him a star. You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to feel it—and to know it’s simply a splendid transitory moment of make-believe.
In the end, it’s a story of strangely tragic proportions, since Randy can only do one thing—wrestle—even if that one thing is bound to kill him. As such, it works itself toward an ending that’s really not that different from the endings of King Vidor’s The Champ (1931) and Chaplin’s Limelight (1952). (If anything, the film most resembles Limelight.) Yet Aranofsky—who proved he can be as transcendentally romantic as anyone with The Fountain (2006)—chooses a slightly different path, putting a different spin on the material and making it fresh, harsher and slightly uncomfortable. See it for yourself. Rated R for violence, sexuality/nudity, language and some drug use.