DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: THE WRESTLER

Thursday, 1 January 2009


The Wrestler (2008) dir. Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood


Not only is Mickey Rourke’s phenomenal performance one of the comebacks of the year, so is Darren Aronofsky’s work on “The Wrestler”. After the long road to bring the muddied and overwrought “The Fountain” to the screen a couple years ago, Aronofsky’s latest film feel like a cathartic return to authentic filmmaking, free from special effects, stylistic excesses and pretentious melodrama. “The Wrestler” is as honest as films come – a beautifully executed story about a broken man struggling to make something of his life.

Mickey Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson once a king in the world of 80’s wrestling, now a middle-aged has-been struggling to make ends meets. The 20 years since his heyday haven’t been kind, his face wears all the battle scars of a life fighting, alcoholism, steroids and many other vices. He speaks with a smokers rasp, and wears a hearing aid. The wrestling meets he fights at are not televised, not performed in large stadiums, it’s the no frills independent circuit – the ‘minor leagues’, if you will, performed in high school gymnasiums and legion halls. The Ram may be old but he still has the passion and talent of a great performer. He honourably throws every ounce of sweat and blood into the ring for entertainment. Everything comes to a halt though when he suffers a heart attack after a particularly brutal match.

He’s now unable to fight, but things start looking up when The Ram makes contact with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), his grocery store job starts to pan out and a tender relationship with his stripper ladyfriend (Marisa Tomei) progresses. But when the demons of the old warrior come back Randy turns to the only thing he’s ever been good at for redemption – wrestling.

Writer Robert Seigel and director Aronofsky get the milieu of this little seen world of independent wrestling exactly right. The authenticity of these characters make it a fascinate environment just to observe. Though the entire film has a free form quality, the backstage scenes in particular sing with organic naturalism. Despite the brutality of the work, there’s warmth and respect amongst the wrestlers. So it’s easy to see why Randy never left the sport.

Mickey Rourke’s astonishing performance anchors every foot of the film. He’s in every scene, and he embodies the sad life of this man. The reunification scenes with his daughter are truly heartbreaking and the tender romance with Cassidy has us rooting for Randy to succeed and assemble the pieces of his life once and for all. But Aronofsky sustains a simmering dread and tension – a tragedy in the waiting. No matter how good things get for Randy he’s always walking a tightrope and could fall at any moment.

After suffering through the contrived melodrama of “The Reader” yesterday, “The Wrestler” is like a breath of fresh air - a deceptively simple film but the result of hard work from Seigel, Aronofsky and Rourke. As a cinemagoer, no matter if it’s “Iron Man” or “The Reader”, every time I go to the movies there’s a chance of being hit in the gonads with a film that ‘just works’ on all emotional levels. “The Wrestler” works perfectly.

It’s a shame though,  just when as Aronofsky seems to have found his stride with truth and authenticity he’s going back into the high stakes artificial world of blockbuster filmmaking. “Robocop” appears to be his next project. If anything the confidence he’s received from this triumphant masterpiece will hopefully spill over into his next work. Enjoy.


Ben said...

Great review. I too thought that Aronofsky's departure from his usual style was a boon.

Germain said...

The Reader, The Wrestler and Flight 1549...

If the universe is fractal, a family comprised of unique parts yet each related, then patterns can be found where none were directly intended. It's the nature of things.

How is that Marconi, Tesla, Popov, Lodge, Fessenden, Hertz, Dolbear, Loomis, Stubblefield and Maxwell all conceived of the radio and invented its necessary parts, separately and apart from each other at the same time? But it was Marconi who nailed it - he owns the radio - Tesla went on to other things, but Stubblefield? - Lost except to Google and 3 radio historians in a library somewhere.

In the movie, The Wrestler, Randy -The Ram - Robinson and his junto of wrestler/performers put on a show, an American show - staged, pure fakery - the ritual is more powerful than the reality.

In the movie, The Reader, Hannah Schmidt, is tried for the murder of 300 Jewish prisoners trapped in a burning church. The Defendants and Judges sit on stage - we know there is a deeper explanation than the evidence will admit but the Court will render its verdict - its ritual of punishment meted.

Two days before the inauguration of Barack Obama, flight 1549 is steered to safety by an unlikely hero, a rather standard issue guy who saves 155 lives just as Obama, an unlikely President, starts his attempt to steer the country to an economic soft landing in hopes of saving countless livelihoods. Sully, the pilot, is a seemingly reluctant hero, no interviews, no show, no ticker tape parade - just did his job and turns a respectful but cold shoulder to the limelight of the 24/7 cable TV spectacle. By nature more Stubblefield than Marconi, our pilot is more than brave - he is decent.

The Reader and The Wrestler - one refined and utterly sad, the other gritty and utterly sad. Two very different films but each bound by connective ligature to the pyramidal (and maybe particularly modern American) kernel of human isolation - that core inside all of us that our flight 1549 pilot seems to have (amazingly) excised from his DNA: the it's-the-outside-that-matters-not-the-inside gene; a/k/a longing for adoration; a/k/a pride - amour propre.

Hannah Schmidt (in the Reader), the former SS guard stands accused of murder and she is illiterate. Robin "Randy The Ram" Robinson, (in the Wrestler) the former wrestling headliner, stands all blond haired, steroid pumped, heart failed image and he is emotionally illiterate.

Hannah Schmidt has a "kid" (she calls her young lover - who reads to her before they make love - "kid") and Ram has a kid, a grown up daughter whom he has not seen in years. Hannah's kid, her lover, reads to her and teaches her heart-love and in return she teaches him fuck-love (he seems the better pupil than she) - but in the end - it's not enough. Ram's kid, his lost daughter, teaches Ram forgiveness - but in the end - it's not enough.

Hannah's pride, her refusal to admit her illiteracy, leads to her confinement without kid. The Wrestler's pride in his past glory and refusal to kick his addiction to the known commodity - impersonal fame (no matter how small time) for the unknown cold turkey love of one single woman -- who says to him all anyone can ask or give: "I'm here, aren't I?" - leads to his emotional imprisonment (without his kid too). She goes to jail. He remains confined in the isolation of the roar of the crowd. For both its a life sentence.

In the end, Hannah, still behind bars in her jail cell, climbs up a stack of shaky but carefully balanced books and from on high hangs herself. In the end, the Wrestler, behind the ropes in his jail cell of a wrestling ring, shakily climbs up the corner post, carefully balanced, and from on high throws himself down to the canvass for his last jump.

Two movies as related in their sadness and regret as Marconi and Stubblefield were in their invention. We shall see how Sully fares when the talk shows come calling. Its the nature of things.


Maki23 said...

'The Wrestler' may be predictable melodrama, we have seen the story before ('Rocky') but this doesn't deminish it's quality in a sense of authenticity; Rourke's brilliant performance, along with Aronofsky's 'low key' documentary style of directing, delivers true emotional experience on screen and that is what really counts...