The Wrestler

Movie Information

The Story: The story of a washed-up 1980s wrestling icon in his declining years, following his desperate bid to stay afloat and find some kind of meaning to his life. The Lowdown: A harsh, sometimes brutal character study that goes far beyond what could have been the limitations of its subject, thanks to a strong central performance and intelligent direction.
Genre: Drama
Director: Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain)
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Mark Margolis, Todd Barry, Wass Stevens
Rated: R

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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7 thoughts on “The Wrestler

  1. Steven

    I’m curious to why your Frost/Nixon review isn’t up. It comes out this Friday.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I’m curious to why your Frost/Nixon review isn’t up. It comes out this Friday.

    Unfortunately, that’s not something I knew until it was too late to get it into this week’s paper, so it’ll be up next week when the paper comes out.

  3. I went to see this yesterday and I was impressed. If Rourke doesn’t get Best Actor I’ll be surprised. What he did was subtle and wonderful. There’s not a lot of dialog in the film for him to work with, so instead it was all about subtlety. He’s mesmerizing to watch. Go see the movie.

  4. Ken Hanke

    If Rourke doesn’t get Best Actor I’ll be surprised.

    I think he stands a very good chance. My personal pick is still Sean Penn in Milk, though I admit that has at least something to do with the fact that Penn is an actor I normally don’t like and he overcame that for me in this case.

    He’s mesmerizing to watch. Go see the movie.

    Yes to both.

  5. Steven

    I just got back from seeing Frost/Nixon and was absolutely floored with Frank Langella’s performance (granted I haven’t seen The Wrestler yet, I plan on seeing it tomorrow). I still think Sean Penn gave the better performance, but I wouldn’t mind seeing Frank Langella taking home the award.

  6. Ken Hanke

    It’s an interesting field this year, since I’d have no big issue with Langella, Penn or Rourke winning.

  7. jp in Marylad

    First of all, Mr. Hanke is one of the few reviewers I actually appreciate and kudos to you, sir, for taking reader feedback and responding.

    I finally saw this movie and like Mr. Hanke, was not exactly blown away and I’m wondering why. The directing is superb, the hand held, the angles, the use of lighting. all of that. I’m not sure Mickey Rourke’s acting is on the level of DeNiro (Raging Bull) or Tommy Lee Jones being Ty Cobb. Hell it can’t be it’s Mickey Rourke for God’s sake, just being Mickey Rourke. But I love Rourke, whatever role he’s doing, he’s a simple hoodlum, or sex maniac, that and nothing more.

    Which is fine, and Aronofsky captures him that way. And that is great. It’s great directing, and it’s nice acting. Same with the physical transformation that Rourke underwent and all the minutia of day to day lives. Whether at the deli or as wrestler. It all rings true and it’s great.

    But what’s missing seems to be a story arc and come character development. As Hanke alludes to: the scenes with Wood are rather contrived and it’s hard to believe she goes from blowing him off one minute, to actually accepting him into her life the next scene. You know we’re being set up for a fall. And so the Wrestler misses a diner date, why would she blow him off after finally accepting him? She waited 2 hours? why?

    Same with Cassidy. She decides to drive all the way to Wilmington because she connects with the Ram on some deeper level. She actually gets there, and just as he does the Ram Jam….She splits! Why? WHy the hell would anyone do that? Of course it’s not believeable and again we know what’s coming.

    As Hanke says “any sentiment is tenuous.”

    I wonder if they had simply juggled these scenes a bit, to produce more story and more character development. His daughter rejection should happen, in the first 20 minutes, she needs to be introduced way earlier. His confession that he’s broken down would come in the middle and the dance scene near the end of the movie. Her childhood and sexuality would have to develop later. You can keep the final Ram Jam/fade to black but at least you have this relationship/character cemented.

    And as for Cassidy? I dunno, if it ends in wilmington she needs to be there, she’s not driving back to jersey without him. And if it doesnt end then he can tell about the heart attack near the end..?

    As another reviewer said: these female characters seem to have been tacked onto the story to increase box office. maybe so, but there is enuf material there that you could have juggled the scenes to get more out of the characters and what they are going through. It wouldnt take much.

    The finished product is so concerned with “tenuous sentiment” that the scenes with both females telegraph what is going to happen as well as shatter believability. We never learn what they went through or where they are going.

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