Eric D. Snider

The Wrestler

Movie Review

The Wrestler

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: A

Released: December 17, 2008

 

Directed by:

Cast:

Much has been made of Mickey Rourke's career-reviving performance in "The Wrestler," where he plays a washed-up Hulk Hogan type trying to make sense of his life outside the ring. As eye-opening as that performance is, I'm also intrigued by the work of the director, Darren Aronofsky, for whom "The Wrestler" is a complete departure -- and a completely successful one, too.

Aronofsky's first three movies, "Pi," "Requiem for a Dream," and "The Fountain," established him as a master of visual poetry, albeit one who is sometimes baffling and obtuse. Those are not necessarily bad qualities -- I consider "Requiem" one of the best films of the decade -- but they do tend to make Aronofsky an acquired taste. "The Wrestler," on the other hand, is entirely straightforward in its visual style and story line. The camerawork is intimate, almost documentary-like, and the characters resonate as regular, identifiable people. The film's genius is in its subtleties, which combine to make it more than just a "Rocky"-style underdog drama. If you look a little deeper, the film has a lot to say about America's entertainment and celebrity culture, and it tells a poignant story in the process.

Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a major pro-wrestling hero in the 1980s whose best days are now far behind him. Living alone in a trailer in New Jersey, he does small-scale shows on the weekends, where he's invariably the top dog and can still command some respect from the has-beens and not-yets of his profession. To pay the bills, he works part-time on a grocery store's loading dock, ignoring the jokes made by his smarmy boss (Todd Barry) about his weekend activities (on his request for more hours: "What, did the price of tights go up?"), and he spends his spare evenings at a strip club, flirting with his favorite, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). Cassidy's best days are behind her, too.

As much as possible, Randy prefers to live in the past. He drives an old van and listens to the hair-metal bands from his heyday (he and Cassidy agree that "the '90s sucked"), and he spends a lot of money on steroids and other enhancements to fight the aging process. But his body has been abused over the years, both in and out of the ring, and he has the scars -- and the hearing aid, and the reading glasses -- to prove it.

The pinnacle of his career was a now-legendary match in 1989 between him and a character called The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller, a real-life wrestler). The 20th anniversary is coming up, and Randy's promoter thinks a rematch could be just the thing to help him recapture some of his youth and glory. (The Ayatollah now sells cars in Arizona.) Randy's health problems, which now include a heart bypass surgery, have led his doctor to urge him away from wrestling, but come on -- what else is he gonna do?

That is the film's central, existential dilemma: What else can a guy like Randy "The Ram" Robinson do? He and Cassidy the stripper are kindred spirits. They both have physically demanding jobs that require stage names and have little use for anyone older than about 30. Neither profession is taken seriously except by its audience, and often not even then. Cassidy doesn't want to be a stripper forever, though, while Randy is slowly realizing that wrestling is his destiny. "The only place I get hurt is out there," he says, meaning the world outside the ring.

Which is an ironic thing to say, given how much he gets hurt inside the ring. Aronofsky peers unflinchingly into the world of professional wrestling, bemused by the backstage choreographing and gobsmacked by the torture these guys -- especially the up-and-comers -- inflict upon themselves for the sake of entertainment. One brutal sequence shows Randy grappling with a sado-masochist called Necro Butcher (a real-life wrestler, born Dylan Summers) and suffering wounds from broken glass, barbed wire, and a staple gun. Cassidy jokingly points out that Randy "The Ram" Robinson is something of a Christ figure -- "You have the same hair," she says, calling him a "sacrificial Ram" -- but there's truth behind it. To misquote Isaiah, Randy was wounded for our enjoyment, he was bruised for our amusement: the chastisement of our bloodlust was upon him; and with his stripes we are entertained.

Aronofsky (working from a lean, well-constructed screenplay by Robert D. Siegel) directs the film with restraint and compassion, never mocking his characters' career choices or questionable life decisions. He frequently shoots Randy from the back, suggesting the way cameras follow performers as they walk from their dressing rooms to the stage -- except that Randy's stages are a trailer, a meat counter, and a strip club.

The film's heart and soul are in Rourke's three-dimensional portrayal of Randy not as a big dumb goon but as a real guy trying to find his purpose in the world. Numerous small touches in his performance (his walk, his voice, his mannerisms) bring the character to life in a way that's incredibly moving, and I don't think there's a single false or contrived moment of "acting" anywhere in the film. Even his attempt to reconnect with his estranged college-age daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he abandoned years ago, doesn't feel like the cliché it could have been. Randy's desire for reconciliation stems from his inner goodness. He's sincere, and he means well. He has a good heart, metaphorically if not physically.

One of the film's simplest, most memorable scenes has Randy good-naturedly working the deli counter at the grocery store, jesting with customers and generally enjoying himself. You start to think the same thing he's thinking, which is that he really could leave wrestling behind and live happily as a wage-earner. But once you've been a celebrity, the public will always view you that way. If you have the audacity to leave showbiz, you're a failure. We want you in the limelight, or we don't want you at all. Randy "The Ram" Robinson is struggling with that harsh truth, and "The Wrestler" brings us along for the heartbreaking journey.

Grade: A

Rated R, a lot of harsh profanity, a fair amount of strip-club nudity, a brief scene of graphic sex, some torturous fight sequences

1 hr., 49 min.

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This item has 9 comments

  1. Belinda says:

    Wow, JCVD and now this! It looks like I have to rethink my opinions about some of the 90's hunks and their talent. Can't wait to see this.

  2. Perry says:

    I have scoured the internet searching out every clip, trailer and reiview I can find of the Wrestler. I am blown away by this film and I haven't even seen it yet. It will be one of those rare films that I go to its first showing when it finally gets to my next of the woods. I have been a fan of Rourke since Diner and when he has stumbled to the screen in the past decade or so, he has always delivered, but what I have seen of this movie seems to far exceed anything he has ever done before. Hey Mickey, thanks for the inspiration! Bravo! Bravo!

  3. Rob D. says:

    Amazing movie! Rourke must win the oscar. It's one of the best performances I've ever seen in my life.

  4. Hamish Cashinella says:

    great rocky type movie and cmon necro butcher COMBAT ZONE WRESTLING AND ROH WOW AMAZING CZW which appears in the film is actually 3 times as violent but ifyour a pro wrestling fan u gotta see it if youre a rocky fan u gotta see it

  5. John L says:

    Amazing performance by Mickey Rourke deserves leading actor Oscar. A face so brutalized (morph Joan Rivers with Tommy Lee Jones) by years of real life personal self abuse that he can barely move his skin; his emotions are still evocatively expressed in his eyes and voice and body language. The dialogue is spot on between Ram and Cassidy, though I find it quite unlikely that the smack run by his nerdy boss at the grocery store would have been tolerated by the Ram in his world.

    A strong A- for me, as I had to suspend all credulity when the young strip club patrons dissed Marisa Tomei as old and unattractive to them. Yeah right...

  6. don e. says:

    The Wrestler was an authentic movie, and clearly heartfelt. But who cares? The man (Robinson) lives for the phony world of the ring and his no-connection girlfriend lives for the phony world of the pole. No one changes in this film -- backward or forward -- because of the existence of the protagonist, with the possible exception of the loser girlfriend. I did not buy the alienated daughter character at all. In my opinion, if U want a film where someone is going down fast in life BUT DOES MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN THOSE AROUND HIM, then see Eastwood's Gran Torino. The world has passed him by, too, but not without him affecting everything and everyone around him by the force of his character/performance. I felt that the Wrestler was overrated in juxtaposition to this superior film.

  7. chocolatemoose says:

    Why does the protagonist have to change the world in order for it to be a good movie? We usually see characters affected by leads as a way to help us process the lessons learned. They often represent us as we see and learn from the protagonist and their choices. But although the Ram never really left the "phony" world of wrestling, I don't think the point of the story was to show how he learns his lesson and everyone holds hands and sings songs together. The story makes us look at our own lives, the things we put ourselves through, the relationships we have with our loved ones. It takes the real, gritty, ugly truth about the lives many people have to live and makes us look at it, when we would usually choose to ignore it so we don't feel so bad. I don't mean wrestlers or strippers, specifically, but any of the many people who live with jobs they hate, longing for the better times, broken relationships that they would only repair if they could. Finally, it helps us look into the things that really matter, and although a lot of it may have ended up lost forever to Randy the Ram, perhaps we can find it before it's too late for us.

  8. Mozy says:

    I just watched this, and I am depressed. Don't watch this if you've contemplated killing yourself recently. This was very well acted, but the film's view on life was so dark--I don't want Pollyanna, but...dang, come on. Marisa Tomei continues to go through her late mid-life crisis, taking yet another role where she can prove to everyone that she is still hot by getting naked and shaking her boobs. Her character is a mess, but at least strives upward, whereas Randy the Ram is tragically fated to never improve his life and die in the ring, and guess what: that sucks. This movie is a new recreational drug, masterfully crafted to purity in a laboratory by a genius chemist; a complex accomplishment difficult to duplicate; but ultimately bad for you, and not worthy of all the praise it got from critics.

  9. timmoody says:

    thanks all, im very eager to watch this movie..

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