The Wrestler

When I was in high school, I joined the wrestling team. Now, amateur wrestling of the sort I was participating in is not the same thing you see on TV. That wrestling is usually called "professional" wrestling. Both sports have some things in common, but amateur wrestling is much closer to other martial arts while the professional variety is closer to the theatrical arts. Thus professional wrestling is usually referred to as "fake" wrestling... and no one was more guilty of that than us "real" wrestlers. Of course, in some ways, our griping was justified, but on the other hand, we were also rather ignorant of the realities of professional wrestling. There is still quite a bit of physicality involved in the sport, and over time, it can certainly take quite a toll. Bill Simmons gives an excellent description of this in his review:
Pro wrestling chews up and spits out its athletes with grueling schedules, brutal physical punishment and a tacit understanding that performance enhancers are okay—as are greenies, sleeping pills and painkillers. These guys destroy their bodies, then their hearts give out and they die. Google the phrase "dead wrestlers," and your computer will start to smoke like an overtaxed car engine.
From the first shots of The Wrestler, you see just how much of a toll it takes. The scene is simple - it just features our main character, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, sitting in a chair preparing for a match. It's instructive that you don't need to see his face or hear him talk about it to know just how broken down and battered The Ram is (even before the match). You can see it in his posture and you can hear it in his breathing. This represents most of what The Wrestler has gotten right, which is Mickey Rourke's performance (which is as excellent as everyone says and yes, the parallels between Randy and Mickey Rourke himself are eerie. I won't belabor the point any more than that becaues it's been covered so extensively by everyone else...) and the inside look at the professional wrestling world that drives everything.

In the 1980s heyday of wrestling, Randy the Ram was at the top of his game, performing at venues like Madison Square Garden in front of sold out crowds. 20 years later, he's battered and broken, playing tiny venues, signing autographs at small, local conventions, and working part-time at a grocery store. He dreams of reclaiming past glory, but hits a roadblock when he has the inevitable heart attack after a match that exemplifies the physical nature of "fake" wrestling. The doctor is clear: if he keeps wrestling, he'll die. This forces Randy to take stock of his life, and he attempts to restablish a relationship with his daughter while expanding his existing friendship with a stripper. The stripper, played by Marisa Tomei, parallel's Randy's story. Like Randy, she has chosen a career with a shelf life, and she's nearing the point where she will no longer be able to rely on her body to make money. She seems better prepared to face this fact than Randy though, and has done a reasonable job separating her personal life from her professional life. Randy is not so lucky. How these relationships play out comprise the rest of the story.

As previously hinted at, the wrestling bits in the movie are fantastic. Despite my high school activities, I never knew much about professional wrestling, but this movie feels right. It hits all the notes of authenticity, from the aformentioned brutality to the backstage banter and wrestling jargon. Unfortunately, the two main relationships described earlier in this review are less successful. Of course, reuniting with an abandoned daughter and a relationship with a stripper represent a mine field of potential cliche, so it's somewhat impressive that screenwriter Robert Siegel is able to navigate with reasonable success. He doesn't emerge unscathed, particularly with respect to the relationship with the daughter (not that stripper subplot is perfect), but he managed to avoid the most troubling cliches. The movie's themes come through loud and clear. It ends on the perfect note, and I'm hard pressed to think of a better ending shot this year, if not this decade.

I loved director Darren Aronofsky's first film, the creepy, paranoid math-based thriller Pi, and was duly impressed by his manic drug addiction tale Requiem for a Dream. I was less impressed by his last effort, 2006's gorgeous looking The Fountain, a movie best described as an "interesting failure." In The Wrestler, Aronofsky has toned down the manic style that impressed so many, but in doing so he has lost none of his visual potency. Instead of the quick cuts and spastic style of his previous efforts, he takes a much simpler, almost verite aproach. The camera follows Randy the Ram in long unbroken takes, often from behind, giving you his view of the world almost as if we're watching a documentary. I can't say it's always fun, but it's usually compelling.

In the end, it's not Aronofsky's best movie and it's not perfect, but it's an improvement over The Fountain and one of the better movies of this year. The simple story basically amounts to a small, character based drama, and at a high level, it proceeds mostly as you'd expect, but it's definitely worth a watch (even if it's just for Rourke's performance). I haven't watched profession wrestling in probably over 20 years, but that doesn't matter - the movie is compelling for other reasons, and can be interpreted in several ways.