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Winner and Still Champion — Aronofsky’s The Wrestler

January 4, 2009

THE WRESTLER (2008)
d. Darren Aronofsky 

Perhaps the single most astonishing visual effect this year that doesn’t involve the digital removal of limbs or the digital placement of heads on children’s bodies is the stunning and somewhat grotesque physique of Mickey Rourke in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.

His beefy pumped up body and home-bleached long hair and sprayed-on tan is the most convincing body transformation since Christian Bale shed pounds for The Machinist or Rescue Dawn. But it all fits in the world of the professional wrestler, and Mickey Rourke wholly inhabits the life of Randy “The Ram” with eerie echoes to his own life as an actor turned boxer turned actor again.

Randy “The Ram” had his heyday in the 80s, as top of the heap fighting colorful characters like Billy Joe Banjo and The Ayatollah in venues like WrestleJam. We glean all this in the opening credits (cut to the excellent Quiet Riot song, “Metal Health (Bang Your Head)”), in the first three minutes of the movie. Cut to twenty years later where, Randy still maintains his impressive physique, but now wrestles in smaller venues, wrapping fragile knees and elbows, wearing glasses and a hearing aid.

We first see him, his hulking back turned to us, as he sits alone on a small plastic chair in the middle of a kindergarten classroom. Immediately we are clued in to his childlike embrace of his glory days and a certain denial of growing old. He still has many pictures of himself back in the day, he even has the original NES system with a game that has himself as a character, and he loves to mock fight with the neighborhood kids.

While wrestling seems an alien world of transformed bodies (through steroid use or otherwise), Aronofsky goes to great length to give us insight into how wrestlers prepare for their bouts, not just the physical preparations, but the scripts, or “spots” on how the choreography will flow and who will win. It is also through Rourke’s warmth and commanding respect to and from the other wrestlers that he gains our sympathy. Here is a man less the champion in the larger public’s eye, but still acts like a champion from the heart. 

But it is his heart that betrays him as years of steroid use has weakened it, and the doctors warn him that to wrestle is to die. Thus another burden is added to his list of ailments with which he must deal with. I keep thinking back to Barton Fink, where Barton writes a wrestling picture about a man who grapples with his soul, and while the Coens deal with it in a comedic manner, laughing at the world of wrestling, Aronofsky uses the entertainment sport to more devastating effect.

Darren also abandons the slick overly-polished cinematography of his last two films for a gritty hand-held verité style that fits the demeanor and psychology of Randy as well as the energy of the ring.

Once confronted with his own mortality and afraid of dying alone, Randy sets about trying to right some wrongs in his life. His friendship with a stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, who still looks blazingly hot and who is undergoing her own resurgence in her career (see Before the Devil Knows Your Dead)) promises something more , and she inspires him to seek out his estranged daughter (Rachel Evan Wood, who, while a fine actor, seems less at ease or natural here — perhaps the script is weakest here, giving her nothing but anger and cliche). Cassidy, like Randy, is also pushing past her prime (her first scene has her in the VIP room being ridiculed by younger clientele). The crucial difference between her and Randy however is that she dreams of a life for herself beyond the stripper pole and catwalk; she has ambition to move beyond her current station whereas Randy want to prolong his arrested adolescence.

In one particular dialogue exchange, Cassidy compares Randy to Jesus in Passion of the Christ, equating the character to a martyr. And in some very brutal matches, Randy gets many very punishing wounds, even some self-inflicted with a hidden razor. Outside of the ring, he also punishes himself — he allows a meek boss of a supermarket to consistently humiliate and berate him. It is also this dichotomy of inside the ring and outside the ring where Randy defines himself. In the ring he is a champion — loved and immortal, outside the ring he is a “broken down piece of meat” — obscure and mortal.

But like all down-and-out sports figures (ala Rocky) you can’t keep Randy “The Ram” out of the ring. And in one of the most heartfelt speeches that also doubles as a meta-acknowledgement of Rourke’s second-wind as a high-calibre actor in movies, and in one of the most indelible last images of the film, you believe that Randy can fight on forever.

**** stars.

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