"The Wrestler is real, true and satisfying."
There's a scene in Darren Aronofsky's latest film, The Wrestler, where Mickey Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson is recovering from a brutal match in the ring. He still has the staples under his skin -- injected with a construction gun by the night's foe (who otherwise seems like an alright guy) -- bits of broken glass hang out of his neck, cuts bleed all over his body from the fleshy pieces of barbed wire he's left behind only moments ago. His over-the-hill body is wrecked and his heart aches for more reasons than he may know. This is his life. Still.
And then there's another scene much later on where Randy "The Ram" tells another character, "I know what I'm doing. The only place I get hurt is out there. The world don't give a s--t about me." And that "out there" isn't the ring with fleshy barbed wire, bits of broken red glass and staples ripped out of human bodies after being shot inside them. No. That's the place where Randy "The Ram" feels safest. It's where he still has a little bit of glory left, even if it is diluted, sad, and in many ways false. So the "out there" is the real world where he's just another rundown has-been standing behind the deli counter of a supermarket. Or, at least, that's what he thinks of himself. (Meanwhile, there's an important scene where Rourke is having the time of his life slicing cold cuts and packaging them for customers.)
I've read many comparisons of this film to Rocky. If anything, this is the antithesis to that film. In Rocky, Stallone had a great title shot. A true opportunity at glory. Rourke's character is forced to cater to nostalgia, in a rematch of has-beens between him, Randy "The Ram," and his mortal enemy, "The Ayatollah." Scores of men recapturing their youth yell and shout and love him from the stands. They boo The Ayatollah. The Ram must defeat The Ayatollah. And The Ram must lose his soul while doing it, even if it costs him his life.
If I have made Darren Aronofsky's film appear operatic or highly dramatic, it's only because of how I have reacted to what is really a very low-key, subtle film. In Rocky, it wasn't so much the end result that mattered, but how Rocky fought that mattered quite a bit. How he would be able to stand up to the great Apollo Creed was everything. In The Wrestler, the fight with The Ayatollah is nothing. It's staged. There's a cardboard belt at the end if he's lucky. But it's the decisions Randy made before he stepped into the ring that mean the world. Other than to the children in the stands, does it really matter if he wins or loses? No. But there is a moment during the fight -- that has nothing to do with the result of the fight -- that really is everything.
What really matters are his relationships with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and a stripper he hopes to make his girlfriend (Marisa Tomei). Those are the real wrestling bouts. He can take the barrage of brutality in the ring. What can he take outside of it?
In case you haven't guessed, I think The Wrestler is one of the best films of 2008. Aronofsky's pared-down approach makes you almost feel as if you are watching a documentary (he shoots many scenes following Rourke's character like a small camera crew would), and when you witness intimate scenes like the one where he tells his daughter he's just "a broken down piece of meat," it almost feels like an invasion of privacy.
I love how the film shows wrestling as an undeniably staged and cartoonish sport but one that is still very real in its physicality; it's a dangerous and dark practice as well. It's an interesting dichotomy. Aronofsky, along with his screenwriter (The Onion's former Editor in Chief, Robert D. Siegel), have fun balancing the humor and the lower depths. I grew up, like most boys in my generation, as a fan of wrestling only later to dismiss it the way we come to dismiss Santa Claus and The Tooth Fairy. Any entertainment value I found in it in later years was purely through irony. Today, I can't even appreciate the irony. There's just sadness. This is a sport that does not take care of its own.
Mickey Rourke's performance is as impressive as it is haunting. He pulls off the physical side of the role as well as the emotional. I almost had to remind myself that I wasn't watching a professional wrestler, but an actor I've known for years. There isn't a scene in this movie where he doesn't look just completely beat -- that includes his moments of joy because you can see him appreciating those moments a little more than he would have years and years ago. He's a man who understands that things like happiness can be stripped away from him at any moment. Hell, he half-expects them to be.
The Wrestler is real, true and satisfying. The end may leave some scratching their heads, but I hope not. I think the filmmakers make it obvious enough that the film concluded in the previous scene. Still, Aronofsky has one more payoff shot left for us. It's Rourke's face as he looks to the bleachers and as he climbs up to his post -- maybe for the last time. It's a struggle to get on that post, more so than ever before, but he gets there. And then we see his face. And again, it's everything we needed to see.
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Dre writes two times a week for Film.com. Email him!