Randy “The Ram” Robinson is an over-the-hill professional wrestler living in a trailer park, and scraping by on his earnings from weekend matches and from his shifts at a grocery store, where he’s lorded over by an insufferable weasel of a boss. Once the king of the ring, Randy (Mickey Rourke) still elicits the love and respect of his wrestling peers and his fans, all part of a culture on the fringes of American life.
Now a battered heap of a man, one senses that Randy’s ample humility and graciousness are the end result of hard knocks and decades of reckless living. He makes halting steps towards courting a woman, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) — a stripper at a local club, herself a bit past her prime — but she resists, determined not to get attached to a “customer” and to put her stripping days behind her. A prime casualty of his rough-living years has been Randy’s relationship with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). They haven’t spoken or seen each other in years, but when, after a particularly brutal match, Randy suffers a heart attack and nearly dies, he decides to seek her out and make amends. She isn’t so willing. And it soon dawns on Randy that the world is crueler and lonelier than he ever figured, and that it’s only in the ring where, ironically, he feels “safest,” and where he belongs in spite of risks posed to his own life.
On paper, The Wrestler is about as conventional a redemption story as there is. It’s the old chestnut about a social underdog who tries to repair all his missteps by doing what he does best one last time. But, having said that, The Wrestler is also about the most impassioned and sincerest film made in 2008, boasting a performance from Rourke that is the living embodiment of an actor’s absolute conviction to a role.
The script by Robert D. Siegel may trade in overly familiar “sports movie” tropes, but he and director Darren Aronofsky together prove that, regardless of its familiarity, a story lives in the details. The specificity of details — in this case, the details of Randy’s hand-to-mouth lifestyle, the often gritty and desperate world of professional wrestling — brings this story to life. There’s so much blood-and-guts vitality to The Wrestler, with its alternately exhilararting and heartbreaking details of life in and out of the wrestling ring, that it feels utterly original. So immersive is Aronofsky and Rourke’s contract with this material, rich with depictions of wrestlers’ backstage rapport, of steroid injections and bodybuilding, of skid-row strip clubs and trailer-park life, that to watch the film is to live this story alongside its characters.
There is one dominating shot in The Wrestler, a tracking shot that follows from behind Randy as he approaches and enters a new space. The effect is of an athlete or a gladiator walking through a corridor, about to enter an arena, bracing for the battle ahead. For Randy, all of life is a battle — whether it’s charging between rows of fans towards the ring, or through the aisles of the grocery store where he works, or up the path to his long-estranged daughter’s house — every destination presents a challenge and demands a hero’s courage. Life is a test, and Randy feels he’s at the losing end of it. It’s a brilliant motif, and Aronofsky employs it skilfully, even once for Cassidy as she readies to enter the stage to perform her routine. Indeed, both Randy and Cassidy are at the end of their ropes — The Wrestler finds each at the verge of taking a leap of faith, into the darkness that will be next chapters in their lives.
The Wrestler is unsparing. It’s violent and visceral on both physical and emotional levels. The scenes of wrestling are raw and direct; bodies slam onto canvas with convincing realism. And, likewise, the scenes of interpersonal confrontation — between Randy and Cassidy, and Randy and Stephanie pull no punches; characters wound each other out of self-defense, the need to survive. Aronofsky’s film demands much from its audience but, unlike the great majority of films, it repays with its tenderness of heart and soul, its wrenching and disarming sincerity. It’s that sincerity, the devotion of a filmmaker and an actor to their story that makes us look past the story’s conventionalities. Indeed, the conventions loom as large as billboards along a highway, but, with this caliber of talent guiding us, we’re grateful to take the journey with The Wrestler nevertheless.
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Robert D. Siegel
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Even Rachel Wood, Mark Margolis, Todd Barry, Wass Stevens, Judah Friedlander, Ernest Miller
Runtime: 109 min.