For most of its gripping 110 minutes, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler successfully challenges the safety of sports-themed redemption tales. Using brisk, jagged editing and handheld cinematography, film tells a bracing and grim story of a man having to choose between physical and emotional punishment. In its second half, the movie surrenders a bit to convention with underdeveloped subplots undermining the movie’s freshness. Still, the film holds up not only as a vehicle for a Mickey Rourke comeback but a tragic reflection on the frailty of the human body.
Full disclosure: I was once obsessed with professional wrestling. I watched WCW programming multiple times a week and even took notes about victors, similar to how I now jot down thoughts when watching movies. With this nostalgia for my middle school days following hardcore bouts and heavyweight champions, The Wrestler had a strong effect on me, particularly in its behind-the-scenes look at how these men talk to each other backstage and plan out fights that will hopefully energize audiences.
In depicting the violence of the ring, this film could have easily slipped into hypocrisy, fetishizing the bloodshed that has damaged our protagonist. Instead, the film is structured in a way that’s honest about the consequences of the blows. With a hardcore bout involving broken glass, staples and barbed wire, Aronofsky at first seems to take the safe route, revealing only the bloody aftermath and a walk back to the locker room. But as flashbacks kick in, the audience sees the carnage that Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke) experiences. While this seems gratuitous at first, the crosscutting between the treatment of Randy’s wounds and the respective acts that sliced him open lends a sense of realism that would have been undercut had we just seen the fight. Dissecting the fakery of professional wrestling does not tame the impact – it somehow intensifies it.
The recognition of the impact on the human body helps The Wrestler stand apart from most “sports movies.” Wrestling is not merely a backdrop; it’s an active antagonist brutalizing the participants, or maybe an addictive drug. The saddest shot is a handheld pan around a room of retired, aging wrestlers signing autographs for fans. As Randy and the audience see the wrinkles in the faces and the artificial limbs, there’s an understanding of the cost. And yet Randy continues to take the punches even past his prime because he needs the money and he doesn’t know how to conduct himself in the world outside of the ropes.
Marisa Tomei’s stripper Cassidy adds an important dimension to the idea of a body paying the bills. As they age, Randy and Cassidy seem to be going out of style. He continues to lose a battle with his heart, and she no longer attracts many customers. Unfortunately, the casting of Tomei here proves unconvincing. She does a great job in the part, lending an intriguing mix of confidence and vulnerability, but to be honest, she has aged tremendously and looks great, in the club and out in the light. Casting such a stunning woman in this role doesn’t quite work.
The film works so well in its first hour, making the on-the-nose devices of the second half such a shame. In particular, Randy’s relationship with his daughter feels transplanted from a lesser movie. Evan Rachel Wood does fine as Stephanie, but she is wasted as a protagonist-developing tool rather than a character herself. An afternoon of hanging out radically reverses the doubts about her father built up over a lifetime, and just as unconvincingly, it all comes crumbling down so fast when he fails to show up for dinner. Though The Wrestler is the stronger movie, the otherwise friendly Warrior deals with familial relationships better – there’s a plausibility in how the relationships between Nick Nolte’s Paddy and his two sons unfold. With Aronofsky’s film, it is perfunctory, all in the service of manipulating Randy’s emotional state.
Some lines of dialogue connect the dots for audiences with no regard for subtlety. When Cassidy mentions Christ during a lap dance, it not only ruins a genuinely fascinating moment – a casual conversation in an unexpected context – but it feels like a broad thematic connection that’s out of place, considering the staggering honesty of the rest of the film. And while it is engaging to see Randy both succeed and struggle in a pay-the-rent job at a deli, the apparent attempt to connect the character’s decaying body and the meat he sells feels cute.
The Wrestler succeeds as a gripping drama, even with its weaknesses, because of the commitment of the filmmaking and the performers. Particularly with the film’s ambiguous ending, this movie overcomes the almost inevitable issue of predictability, given the subject. If this film makes anything clear, it is that all of our bodies have an expiration date, even if for some of us it’s sooner than later. Don’t we always know the ending?
- Todd Kushigemachi
Originally posted here.