The Wrestler [movies]

By: E · January 7, 2009

It takes a hell of a filmmaker to make a movie that’s so gloriously triumphant while so deeply immersed in sympathy. You just feel so bad for Randy Robinson, a past-his-prime professional wrestler who is still hungering for the cheers of the crowd. And yet, you genuinely cheer for him. And often throughout Darren Aronofsky’s movie, your cheers are duly rewarded in the most unlikely places.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson was on top of the world in the 80’s, culminating in a Madison Square Garden match against The Ayatollah. And yet, Randy’s still wrestling in gyms and small venues because he doesn’t have anything else in his life. After a particularly brutal hardcore match, Randy suffers a heart attack, and receives bypass surgery. The doctor warns him to retire from wrestling, which Randy attempts to do. Yet a 20th anniversary rematch against his old rival, The Ayatollah, lures him back in for one last match, maybe at the cost of his own life.

The movie, as a whole, is a tale of redefining victory…I say “victory” specifically, because this isn’t a movie about “success,” which is so often our barometer for whether our life is going the way we want it or not. Success is consistent, maintained, a pattern, something that Randy’s life lacks. Victories are ephemeral, soaring moments few and far between, and Randy’s life is a string of recognizable victories to him: popularity, the cheers of the crowd, recognition, a match well fought. It’s the classic story of an entertainer who can’t let go, but in this case his craft happens to have the negative consequence of deteriorating his body. In old age, Randy’s life is still about victory in the only forsm he recognizes, even though he can’t perceive that these aren’t victories, they’re just echoes of his former life. The way the movie flows, it’s set up in a way where we as the audience are cheering for Randy to accept the victories in his life away from wrestling: holding down a steady job, reconciling with his daughter, finding love. And yet, we’re still dazzled by the limelight. Every wrestling match we’re cheering for him to not only survive, but to win. Because we want him to get the cheers, the adoration, getting to raise his hand in victory at the end…even though we’re aware that these ring hollow. The result is a beautiful mix of sympathy and elation, as the movie gives us moments to cheer for Randy when he manages to escape his life in tiny increments, yet still getting to indulge in the escapist aspects that professional wrestling is all about…we get to worship the spectacle.

The heart of this movie begins and ends with Mickey Rourke, who gives one of the most honest performances I’ve ever seen an actor give. Maybe it’s the fact that Rourke himself is a washed up actor, far past his prime, and rather than acting in ways that’s familiar to him (i.e. as a psychopath), he’s returning to his roots as a deeply affecting, emotional actor. He plays Randy with a quiet aw-shucks humility that doesn’t serve to conceal or hide the tortured, angry man that rests within. It exists simultaneously, with the narcissistic, deeply flawed man that burns through whenever life tosses Randy for a spin. He’s easy to cheer for, and easy to be disappointed in, and all the while you’re never quite sure if he’s going to make it out of all of this with his life intact…at the end of the film, you’re still not, and it’s Rourke’s emotional ballast that makes you walk away from the movie both worried yet guiltily glad. A part of you really does want him to go out with a bang, to not break down, to never stop performing.

Added to all of this is Aronofsky, who shoots the picture in a way starkly different from his previous movies (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain). Where before Aronofsky was consumed with precision and symmetry, here he grabs handhelds and follows the actors from behind. The entire movie is about the walk in the tunnel, about to emerge to the crowds or retreating from a match as reality comes crashing down. Even the wrestling matches are shot in such close quarters, you not only see the pain the performers encounter, but hear the phrases used by the professionals as they plan the match. And yet, in moments where the movie needed to breathe, he pulls the camera back and lets Rourke and Wood walk down the Jersey boardwalk, shows an overhead shot from an empty parking lot. He’s still got that precise eye on everything, he’s just using it in a controlled chaos kind of way, as the movie involves a lot of camera movement, spinning around the actors, switching directions as the actors spin back the other way, and using tiny jump cuts in the quieter moments to keep the kinetic nature of the movie buzzing through the whole runtime.

As Randy approaches the final match, his old rival remarks to him “You’re the face, I’m the heel.” It’s a simple line of wrestling lingo that marks what this movie is about. Randy is the good guy, the protagonist, the hero. And whoever he fights against is the bad guy. That much is clear when he’s in front of the crowd, in the ring. We know who to boo against, and we know to cheer when his 80’s glam rock starts to blare over the speakers. Yet when he steps away from that arena, we’re still left with that emotion, that Randy is the face…and yet the heel disappears. Instead, the people who are difficult with him, who don’t give him his way, who hurt him even when trying to help, they’re not the heel. And neither is Randy. And in that sense, we realize the difficulty that exists in a man who lived in that world his life. There’s no one to fight back against, and you can’t find a victory to keep you going until the next one. In the end, The Wrestler gives us no answers. It simply shows one man’s journey, and we’re the crowd, hoping for the best, but all too aware that all we can do is cheer while the men on the other side of the metal gates have to fight the battles alone.

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