The Wrestler (2008)

The Wrestler came out of nowhere to be hailed as one of the most stirring dramas of the year. Who would have possibly guessed that a movie that stars Mickey Rourke in spandex would be one of the best films of 2008?

Randy “The Ram” (Rourke) was one of the biggest professional wrestlers in the 1980s. His pay-per-view battle with “The Ayatollah” in 1988 is legendary to wrestling aficionados. But nobody ever stays on top forever. Twenty years later, Randy is a self-described “old broken down piece of meat.” He’s barely staying afloat working at a supermarket during the day. On weekends he adorns his old tights and fights in wrestling bouts at VFW halls, where small numbers still flock to see the scripted carnage. Randy is fighting against the ravages of time and is determined to stick it out with the profession that has both made him a super star and also left him broken and lonely. He can relate to Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a 40-something stripper that gets disrespected by customers because of her age. Randy seeks out his teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) to attempt to be a father for the first time in the girl’s life. Then a wrestling promoter wants to stage a twentieth anniversary rematch between Randy and “The Ayatollah” (who runs a successful used car business in Arizona now). The opportunity means Randy has one more shot in the limelight before his health sidelines him for good.

There isn’t a note in The Wrestler that feels misplaced or a moment of drama that feels false or contrived. The scenes of emotional revelation feel genuine and aren’t delivered with deliberate emphasis, like Randy’s moving speech where he tells his neglected daughter how rotten of a father he was, which he accepts bitterly, but he pleads to fashion enough understanding just for his little girl not to hate him. The Wrestler skews against convention and ends on its own terms, following the fated trajectory of its tragic hero. This isn’t a generic or sentimental tale of uplift and redemption. Randy is eager to make amends for a lifetime of bad decisions but he is also keenly aware that he has little to offer and that the outside world has little place for him. The Wrestler is a tender tale about a man trying to find his place in a world no longer familiar to him. Randy tells Cassidy at one point that the only place he ever truly feels pain is outside of the ring.

The film skillfully explores what is fake and what is real in the wrestling world. The matches may be predetermined but the injuries are very real. These muscled warriors are essentially pro stuntmen with some charisma and their bodies are their offering to the screaming masses. They give everything they have for the crowds but what do they get in return once the applause dies down? After witnessing the bloody aftermath of an especially brutal match, which included Randy being lacerated with barb wire and having a staple gun decorate his back, it’s easy to wonder why any sane person would subject themselves to this kind of punishment and for so long. Cassidy is in another profession that tends to grind up and spit out its star attractions. She reaches out to Randy not out of romance (a lesser film would have demanded she fall in love with the big lug) but out of a desire for human companionship, for something real. These two characters are both at a crossroads and must come to grips with the cold realization that the world has passed them by.

The script by Robert Siegel came alive for me in the details. I love discovering that Randy endures shame that his real name is the more effeminate-sounding Robin. I love that the film shows a scene where a batch of old wrestlers sit next to folding tables and hawk tapes of their greatest matches that no one wants to relive but the old timers. I loved that Randy’s long walk through the bowels of the supermarket to greet his “fans” at the deli counter mirrors his entrances to wrestling bouts.

Astonishingly, Darren Aronofsky directed this movie. The film departs sharply from Aronofsky’s highly artistic yet stylistically mannered previous films, like Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain. He strips away the style pyrotechnics and follows a no-frills docu-drama approach. This dynamic helps accentuate the raw and harsh reality of the film. It’s the most relaxed direction the man has ever done. He’s able to churn the myriad of emotions and broken dreams into a powerful character study that never feels manipulative. The Wrestler feels remarkably intimate and emotionally bruising.

The Wrestler is built to be a one-man show and it’s a terrific show. Rourke’s performance is invigorating and the former Hollywood bad boy channels his own personal history of regret and missed opportunities. The line between character and individual is noticeably blurred. Rourke’s busted and mangled face tells a long history for Randy. The physical shellacking that the 52-year-old Rourke takes is brutal, and you realize that he throws his body into the performance with wild abandon for a man his age. I cannot imagine this film working or having nearly the poignancy with Nicolas Cage in the lead role, which is what was originally planned (Cage might have had a more bizarre haircut). Rourke is the role. It is a perfect marriage of actor and character. The character of Randy is the latest in the long film tradition of the noble loser that must fight to reclaim his victory, which makes for a deeply empathetic experience. Randy is a gentle giant, courteous even to the people that insult him and his glory days. You will feel the man’s every high and low. When he’s working at the deli counter and begins to have fun, joking around with customers, you’ll feel his sense of revelry too. When he’s lonely and invites a neighbor kid over to play an old 8-bit Nintendo video game featuring Randy, you’ll feel the same ache of sadness to connect. When Randy screws up, you’ll feel the same angry disappointment. When Randy is out shopping for wrestling props and playfully involves others in “testing” them, you’ll feel the man’s amusement and sense of peace. Other actors might have given in to the setting and played Randy as a caricature, but Rourke plays with subtlety when he could have gone big. He’s reflective and somber and has a well of repressed anger buried deep within. It’s a performance for the ages and cements Rourke’s cinematic comeback.

The Wrestler is a rich and engrossing character study that aches and wheezes with the pain of real life. Randy is a man that’s lived a hard life, by design, but at his core he is a kind and decent man. The film takes after its star and proves to be quiet, unassuming, brutally honest, and deeply affecting. Rourke bares his own tortured soul by playing Randy, and his performance is unquestionably one of the best of the year. This is a surprising, heartfelt, and equally heartbreaking movie that finds many truths through the self-dawning of its title hero. It’s not the wrestling matches that I’ll remember most, no sir. I will remember the small interludes, like Randy dancing with his daughter, the beer he shares with Cassidy as they lament the 1990s, the love and brotherhood backstage between with the wrestling opponents, Randy delighting the kids in his trailer park by pretending to fight them. Randy may not find solace or stability outside the ring but the people around him prove that Randy was bigger than “The Ram.”

Nate’s Grade: A

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About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on December 9, 2008, in 2008 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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