I heard a story the other day on the radio from an actor who was up for a part in Darren Aronofsky’s THE WRESTLER. According to him, the project originally had Nicolas Cage attached to the lead role of Randy “The Ram” Robinson. When you see the film, you will understand how completely absurd the idea of having Cage in that role is. Not only could he never look the part (Mickey Rourke gained around 50-60 pounds for the part) but this role had to be played by Rourke. It’s not just Rourke’s imposing stature. He brings with him a lifetime of initial promise followed by self destruction, which is what I’m sure drew him to the role in the first place. However, THE WRESTLER is by no means the “Mickey Rourke” story. At all times we are watching The Ram.
Rourke stars as Randy The Ram, an over the hill professional wrestler whose days of performing for packed houses in large arenas are long over. Now he’s relegated to rec halls and community centers, working extra hours at a supermarket in order to pay rent on his trailer. Randy spends his free time at a local strip club where he takes a shine to Cassidy (Marissa Tomei). Like Randy, Cassidy is past her prime and her clientele know it. They both entered into careers where their bodies were the main attraction, a concept that doesn’t bode well for people in their 40s and 50s. There is another woman in Randy’s life, his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who has been let down and disappointed by Randy too many times. Rourke has two scenes with Wood in the film, and both will break your heart in entirely different ways.
At one point in the film Rourke confides in his daughter that he’s nothing but a “broken down piece of meat.” He’s absolutely right. The Ram looks like chewed up beef, with scars to prove his years of abuse on his body. Most people believe that wrestling is “fake.” It is true that it is predetermined, but I would have a hard time telling someone who just had a match involving broken glass, barbed wire and a staple gun that what they did was “fake.” The wrestling scenes in this film are unbelievably brutal. It will be difficult to watch for some viewers. For those interested in the subject, Bernie Blaustein’s fantastic documentary BEYOND THE MAT shows the difficult life of wrestlers, the impact it has on their loved ones, and the struggle to maintain that lifestyle. I decided to look up some of my old favorite wrestlers that I watched when I was young to see how they turned out. Lex Luger is in a wheelchair, Owen Hart was killed in the ring, Bret Hart suffered a stroke and was forced to retire. Mr. Perfect and the British Bulldog died of drug overdoeses. They were 44 and 39 respectively. Chris Benoit murdered his wife and child before taking his own life a few years ago. There were steroids found in his blood. Certainly the life of a wrestler seems to lead to inevitable tragedy. It was wise of Aronofsky to use this culture as a backdrop to tell Randy’s story.
I was reminded of RAGING BULL when watching this film. How Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNir0) used the boxing ring as a form of self-flagellation, punishing himself for his sins. Randy uses his ring for a similar purpose, but injects The Ram with a kindness and vulnerability that DeNiro’s LaMotta didn’t have. There is nothing at all glamorous about THE WRESTLER. The grainy, handheld camera pulls us in to this third rate world of lifetime losers. You can almost smell the stink off of this film. The stale, sweaty air of a community center wrestling event or the smokey, sleazy perfumes of the strip club. It is a completely immersive film experience. Aronofsky employs a series of great tracking shots to start the film, and in one brilliant sequence, mirrors his life as a wrestler with working the deli counter of the supermarket.
I’m astounded that this film was from the same director as THE FOUNTAIN and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. Those were big, bold, ambitious films. REQUIEM, the darkest film I’ve ever seen, is hyper-stylized, fast paced and relentless. THE FOUNTAIN was a major letdown for me. The kind of film I could appreciate but not enjoy (much like the canon of David Lynch). It was too jumbled, too obtuse and too heavy handed. Somehow, Aronofsky was able to go from Hugh Jackman worshiping a tree from inside a bubble floating in space to this film. It is truly unlike anything he has ever done as a filmmaker. Aronofsky has always been an undeniable talent, but he has never been able to express a human story like this before. THE WRESTLER is superbly shot and directed, and Aronofsky gets the most out of each performer.
THE WRESTLER is a remarkable film about loss, redemption and limitations. It is brilliant in execution and deeply moving. Rourke’s performance is legendary, and though it is a cliche to say an actor “disappears” into a role but that’s exactly what he does. It brings me back to the laughable notion of Nicolas Cage in the role. Cage can be a fine actor, but the scene between The Ram and his daughter on the boardwalk will prove that no other actor could play this role. The tears are real, and come from a lifetime of experience, sadness, loss and regret from a man who was once called “the next Brando.” THE WRESTLER climaxes with an ending that is note perfect. The final shot is a stunner, and the Bruce Springsteen song that plays out the credits is fitting. Experiences like THE WRESTLER are rare, and after seeing it, I’m reminded why I spend so much time and energy with this medium.