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The Wrestler

(2008)

Directed by

Darren Aronofsky

 The Wrestler Poster

Review by Todd Plucknett

 

Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Wrestler is a sincere and deeply moving work of art. Coming off such a failure of ambitious filmmaking as The Fountain, Aronofsky finally calms down to bring us the most poignant character study of the year. It is a special film, and it ranks right at the top of list of 2008’s best films.

The title character is Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke). The film’s opening credits contain radio voice-overs and newspaper/magazine clippings getting the audience up to speed on the story of the world-renowned wrestler. In the 1980s, he was king of the ring. Slowly, his career went down the drain. The first shot of Randy features him sitting in a grade school classroom with his back to the camera (we do not see his face for several minutes). He is sitting there, coughing, dejected after another fight waiting for his minimal pay. That is what his career has come to. No longer are there hundreds of screaming fans; there are just enough to surround the ring of local run-down New Jersey gyms. Why does Randy still wrestle? His other job is working minimum wage at a supermarket. His daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) has been estranged from him for a long time, and he spends all his cash on booze, strippers, and drugs to keep it going. Really, it is because wrestling is all he knows, and the ring is where he feels he belongs.

The Ram is a really genuine guy, actually. When he is speaking with the younger wrestlers in the underground circuit, he seems very personable and true, advising these younger men to stay in the game, because he sees a tremendous amount of talent and potential in them. All of the people in the wrestling business love him and idolize him. What is his problem outside the ring, then? He somehow pushes everyone away. He lives alone in a trailer park, which he has to work hard just to make the payments for. He is completely by himself, and seemingly nobody cares for him. He tries to create something more than a strictly business relationship with a local stripper named Cassidy (Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei), who has a similar situation with her career. She is mostly kind and sympathetic toward Randy and his career, and she urges him to try to make up with his daughter. Randy is challenged throughout the film, trying to persevere through the emotional punches from these women, the physical hits in the ring, and his ever-present health problems that are putting the future of his career and a really great money-making fight opportunity in jeopardy. Watching Randy roam through the streets, trying to regain some sort of satisfaction in his life, is a tremendously rewarding experience.

This film belongs to Mickey Rourke. His performance is beyond perfect. It is incredibly natural and always heartfelt. He does not make a single false move, and every word is delivered with a passion and sensitivity that brings to mind other iconic screen performances of the past. He is definitely back. Evan Rachel Wood is also outstanding in her few wrenching scenes. She is possibly the most consistent actress of her generation. Marisa Tomei is superb as the most candid character in the film. Her character is the one person who really levels with Randy, and the scenes between the two of them are incredibly rich and authentic.

These scenes between Randy and Cassidy (their real names are actually Robin and Pam) are the ones that are the most sincere. They have one unforgettable exchange in a bar in which they both agreed that the ‘90s sucked, which is even more poignant when you think about what Rourke was going through in that decade. Also, these two characters are going through similar things as well. The body can only take so much strain, and being an aging stripper, Pam can totally identify with that. She genuinely cares about him, but she can’t express that completely due to her profession. Watching The Ram try to win her over is among the greatest little elements in this phenomenal film.

It is almost impossible to not draw the comparisons between Randy and Rourke. Even though Rourke is basically unrecognizable as The Ram, his life is almost perfectly parallel with his character’s life. Back in the 1980s, in Randy’s glory days, Rourke was on the top of the world. He was the next big thing, and with fantastic performances in films such as Diner, he was set up to be the next Brando. His mannerisms and how he carried himself on screen in those days was just like Brando was in 1950s. Then, for whatever reason, he fell off the map, throwing his life away in his well-documented struggles. At the same time, that is when Randy’s career started to take the downward spiral as his body would no longer let him do the same physical tricks in the ring. Now, they are both, as The Ram puts it, “an old broken-down piece of meat”. The best days of their lives are behind them, and they are forced to defy the odds and continue in their craft. Rourke proves that he still has every bit of the charisma that he had twenty years ago. The Ram proves that he still has the enthusiasm and passion for his sport, and that it is only his body that cannot take the beating anymore.

It has been stated that the role of The Ram was actually given to Nicolas Cage, and then he gave Rourke his blessing to take over after Aronofsky fought for the studio to fund him. While many would be quick to jump on the hater bandwagon and think that Cage would have ruined it, I think the role actually could have been written for him. There were several points throughout the film where Randy would mutter some little touching line, and I felt like I had heard Cage say that same line at some point in the past. Physically, I do not know how he would have pulled it off, but emotionally, it would have worked if he would have treated it somewhat like he did his leading role in Leaving Las Vegas. Obviously, looking back on it, it is hard to imagine anyone else other than Rourke playing The Ram. They definitely made the right choice, especially because it got Rourke seriously back in the game and because of all the life parallels that provide so many more rewards that would not have been present if someone else had been cast.

The film really excels with its technical frankness and lack of typical effects. Aronofsky completely ditches his dizzying camera movements for an incredibly simple approach. If this had been filmed any other way, it would not have worked. The film is just beautifully shot and extremely well edited. Aronofsky is really the real deal. He is a complete original that obviously learned his lesson after the flopping of the irritatingly pretentious The Fountain. The title song by Bruce Springsteen was the best song of the year, and its Oscar snub is unforgivable. The score by the great Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream) is superb in its simplicity and effect. I actually caught on the credits that the guitar strums were done by Slash. How cool is that?!

What gives the film its status is that it is not what one would really expect to see. It is not Rocky. Maybe if you mixed Rocky with Raging Bull, you would get something that could compare to this. There are similarities between Randy and LaMotta, actually. There are some seriously brutal and unflattering shots of the wear and tear that wrestlers put on their bodies (featuring things such as shooting a staple gun into the gut of the competitor) that brought to mind the extreme brutality that Martin Scorsese shot the fight scenes in Raging Bull with. This is not a story of redemption or an underdog story that is going to act as an inspirational crowd-pleaser. It is a story of uncompromising honesty about a guy trying to deal with his past mistakes and live a life that he can be proud of. It is a wonderful little film that is a deeply moving and rewarding experience that everyone should have. And please give Rourke the Oscar. It is a performance for the ages.

Rating:

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