A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #2


2008, R, 109 mins.

Randy "The Ram" Robinson: Mickey Rourke / Cassidy/Pam: Marisa Tomei / Stephanie: Evan Rachel Wood / Scott: Judah Friedlander

Directed by Darren Aronofsky / Written by Robert D. Siegel.

A cursory look at THE WRESTLER may make you think that it’s a film about a bloody , barbaric, and sensationalistic form of "sports entertainment" and spectacle.  Yet, if you take a more penetrating look  at the film then it would yield an impression that’s it’s more of a raw, unnerving, sad, and tragic tale of one utterly downtrodden man that is desperately attempting to gain understanding and respect from an uncaring and scrutinizing society that despises him.  

It concerns a man – totally eviscerated by life in general – that has no skills beyond those in the squared circle: Inside those confines, he is an unstoppable celebrity force, a larger-than-life gladiatorial figure that is worshipped by thousands.  Outside of the ring, he can barely make rent, keep a relationship with his estranged daughter, nor keep a lowly and demoralizing job working weekends at a deli counter at a local grocery store.  Even worse is the notion that he is more than past the prime of his fighting career, forced to participate in nickel and dime cards that can barely be housed in school gymnasiums.  As a wrestler, he has a legion of followers that are like one large communal family; as a normal citizen, he’s pathetically alone without any meaningful ties to anyone.  

The subtle tragedy of THE WRESTLER is that its character is really beyond personal redemption: He lives an existence with no compromises, no hope for reconciliations, and – most importantly – no hope for anyone to understand his pain and remorse. 

The wrestler in question is named Randy “The Ram” Robinson, played in a fearless, endlessly courageous and deeply heartfelt career resurrecting performance by Mickey Rourke.  Born Robin Ramzinski (he hates being called by his first name), The Ram was one of the largest attractions of the 1980’s in his profession, whose Adonis-like mane of blond hair, chiseled physique, and audacious and flamboyant ring personality made him a Hulk Hogan-esque sight to the behold.  After all of his successes and domination of the sport throughout that decade, Randy would take a downward spiral to oblivion and personal despair.  Fast forward to the present and we see this man as broken, battered, and remorsefully demoralized and exploited: He lives in a shabby and ramshackle trailer home in Northern New Jersey, is penniless and nearly friendless, has a shoddy hearing aid, is alcoholic and utterly dependant on steroids and drugs, and can barely make ends meat working a combination of lackluster wrestling draws and loading boxes at a local supermarket where is boss ridicules and demoralizes him.  

If you thought that Rocky Balboa was a disheartened and lowly underdog figure in the classic 1976 film, then Randy Robinson is a whole other unattainable level of pathetic and isolated creature altogether.  The only matches that he still can get his battered and scar-laden body into are local cards that barely pays him rent money and, when not in the ring, he subjugates himself to participating in depressing autograph sessions where past fans pay him for his signature on apparel and collectibles.  At one such session we see other former stars of the sport: one is hampered in a wheelchair and incapable of walking and another poor soul is forced to where a catheter in his pants.   

Randy, considering his age and increasing reliance on performance enhancing drugs, certainly should say “goodbye” to the ring, but he stubbornly refuses.  He takes whatever card he can land himself on, no matter what the emotional or physical burden.  One match in particular is quite barbaric, even within the staged confines of wrestling.  During one particularly brutal and bloody hardcore match – which includes Randy and his opponent, Necro Butcher, using weapons as various as thumbtacks, barbwire, folks, knives, glass windows, tables, chairs, and, yes, staple guns (yuck) being used to inflict bodily harm - we see Randy win the approval of the cavorting cheers of the sadistic, carnage-thirsty crowd.  He does win the match, but the toll was substantial.  Looking more like a tenderized and lacerated piece of meat than a man, he collapses in the dressing room and has a near fatal heart attack.  His doctor, rather stridently, tells “The Ram” that his head smashing days are over.   

With his career all but done and with no sense of fulfillment at his day job at the grocery store, Randy finds little solace. He does have one friend who is kind of an eerie reflection of him, a local middle-aged stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, in a spunky, sultry, and empowered performance).  She performs lap dances for him, but they have a bond that goes well beyond the confines of client/stripper agreement.  Randy develops a fondness for the woman, maybe because he can see a bit of himself in her.  She too has a personal story that parallels his as she’s a past-her-prime figure that swallows her pride to service customers that consider her a has-been.  Cassidy also likes Randy, but lives by a self-inflicted peeler code of not getting involved with a client.  Slowly, the two develop a closeness, maybe as a crutch to help sustain the burdensome impact of their present circumstances. 

She does manage to break down some of the emotional barriers that Randy has placed in the forefront to shield him from just about everyone in life, including his very estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, incredibly fiery and heart-wrenching here), whom he has all but left on the sidelines when his wrestling career was big years ago.  Cassidy convinces him to visit her, but she verbally accosts him with hurtful and vindictive language when he does.  He thinks he has all but lost her, but Cassidy intervenes again to help him.  On Randy’s next visit with his daughter – in the film’s most harrowing and moving moment – he lets his guard down and reveals all of his deeply pent up torment and regret in life with his choices.  Just when things seem to be going his way on the relationship front, Randy is given a distinct opportunity to participate in a reunion card versus his most legendary 80’s nemesis, The Ayatollah (who now owns a car dealership).  Their very first match sold out Madison Square Garden, but now the long-awaited rematch between them could be the beginning of a rejuvenation of Randy’s career.  But with a failing heart and a very rocky relationship he’s trying to keep together with his daughter, Randy is forced to make some life-altering decisions that will either invariably hurt himself or those he loves around him. 

I have used the term “sport” when describing wrestling in the film…and for good reason.  It’s very true that pro wrestling is a staged event with the outcomes worked out and choreographed beforehand, but the damage often inflicted on the participants – both directly and inadvertently – is treacherously real.  One of the most fascinating and continuously gripping aspects of THE WRESTLER is the meticulousness it demonstrates with honing in on the behind the scenes aspects of the sport.  We get glimpses and reveals throughout about how wrestlers strategize their movements at key moments, not to mention one grizzly reveal of how wrestlers make themselves bleed at will when getting either hit or thrown into objects.  The individual matches themselves have a gritty realism and spontaneity as well, which greatly lends verisimilitude to the proceedings.  Whether you consider pro wrestling a sport or entertainment or a combination of the two, there is no denying that this is one of the most immersing films and pragmatic portrayals about the nature a “sport” that I’ve seen.  The way the film digs deep into these performers that are both athletes and sadistic and fatalistic stuntmen is one of the film’s many wonders. 

Lending greatly to the film’s grizzled and blood 'n sweat level of realism is the tour de force and titanic performance that’s sure to win the Oscar by Mickey Rourke.  Firstly, his work here is one of the great physical transformations of an actor: In terms of sheer prowess, Rourke’s commitment to the role is nothing short of astounding.  For a man that is closing in on 53, the actor has thoroughly transformed himself into a fairly granite cut and hulking specimen, which is commendable enough, but it also certainly appears that he does most of his own stunts and remarkably acrobatic maneuvers in the squared circle.   The camera manages to catch the action without annoying cutaways to stuntmen or any distracting visual effects trickery.  All of Rourke seems on rugged display here, and it’s a staggering sight.

His best moments, though, are the introspective and quiet ones.  Randy is a beefy mountain of a man, but is emotionally a featherweight.  Not only does the role call for Rourke to be an immense visceral presence in the film, but it also calls upon him to tap into the unfathomable recesses of the psychological scars that Randy has suffered through most of his life.  This is where the role certainly is more than personal for the actor, who had experience to draw upon:  Once believed to be the next Robert De Niro in the early 80’s, Rourke’s once promising film career faltered into a hasty and unsuccessful attempt at professional boxing, which was followed by altercations with the law and addiction woes.  Aside from wonderful, scene stealing work in 2005’s SIN CITY, Rourke was all but unemployable in Hollywood.  

To see Randy in THE WRESTLER during his more touching and intimate scenes where he tries to find meaning and redemption in a scrutinizing and spiteful world, it’s impossible to segregate the role from Rourke’s past afflictions.  Working in searing and effective tandems with Tomei and Wood respectively, it’s not difficult to see how Rourke’s work solidifies him as the comeback actor of the decade.  His icon-in-the-making performance will long be regarded on a short list of other magnificent and everlasting pugilist personas, like Brando’s Terry Malloy, Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, and De Niro’s Jake La Motta.  The simple manner with which Rourke so thoroughly inhabits the existentialist dread and pathos of his character is one of the primary reasons for THE WRESTLER soaring well beyond the confines of a narrowly labeled underdog/comeback sports film. 

Perhaps the real comeback kid that is missing from the spotlight of Rourke’s virtuoso performance is the director of the film itself.  THE WRESTLER is rather uncharacteristically helmed by, among all people. Darren Aronofsky, in what has to be the most amazing directorial transformations in a long time.  He broke out with 2000’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (a haunting and hallucinogenic film that I appreciated, but did not like altogether very much) and then followed that up with 2006’s THE FOUNTAIN, which was a metaphysical sci-fi film that I called in my review of it “one of the most technologically dazzling and impressive misfires in a long time.”  THE FOUNTAIN was an unapologetic feast for the eyes, filmed with surreal imagery that – despite how arresting and alluring they were – were married with a story that was ponderous and impenetrable.  Much as he demonstrated with his freshman effort Pi in 1998 and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, I had no doubts that Aronofsky was a real film artist with talent.  Unfortunately, THE FOUNTAIN – placed on my list of the  Worst Films of 2006 – elevated my concerns for his future efforts:  My advice to him then was as follows: “If he could only reign in his gifts to tell a story worth our patience and attention spans, then he would surely have something profound to bestow upon us.” 

Apparently…he listened.  THE WRESTLER wholeheartedly succeeds even beyond my own expectations after the maligned THE FOUNTAIN.  Realizing that all of the self-indulgent artistic and stylistic hubris he filled the screen with in that 2006’s film,  Aronofsky has all by abandoned technology in THE WRESTLER.  Avoiding any apparent use of special effects, computer tinkering, and absconding from hyperactive editing and camera work, he as all but subdued himself in a loose, care-free, and almost fly on the wall documentarian feel and look to the film.  Shot with a grainy and grungy 16mm – and without much in the way of carefully planned and constructed shots – THE WRESTLER breaches with so much more believability than it would have with different aesthetic choices.  The film represents the most effective counter programming to viewers that think that big, large scale, Michael Bay-esque orgies of sweeping and schizophrenic cinematography has all but neutered a sense of palpable and down-to-earth realism.  The fact that Aronofsky – who previously displayed himself as a visionary director that often let style hinder substance – is the filmmaker here makes THE WRESTLER all the more inspiring. 

THE WRESTLER is so far and away in a class by itself in the underdog sports genre; it adheres to many of its core elements (an aging and down on his luck bum of a hero, a girl he has to convince to love him back, and a final fight to reclaim his glory and lost sense of pride, etc.), but the genius of the film is how it avoids adherence to our expectations of the genre.  The film is almost uplifting and rousing for how forthright and uncompromising it is with its nihilism:  Here’s a rare sports film where the hero is never given second chances outside of the ring (there are no compromises, no reprieves, and no squeaky clean resolutions for him), nor is there a presence that truly roots him on to final victory in the end.  The film ends on a note of poetic, ambiguous sadness: Grabbing a microphone and speaking in front of legions of his Ram-a-maniacs, Randy tearfully explains how the real world is the only place that wounds him and – despite the physical turmoil and hardship in wrestling – he only belongs in the ring, with it and the fans being his only loving family.  The final shot, and the rest of the film, is a simple, sparse, deeply evocative and melancholic kick to the gut and heart…

...just how The Ram would have liked it.

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