The Wrestler (2008) immerses us in the life of Randy “the Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), an aging ex-professional wrestler who has fallen on hard times. Randy seems to have lost the ability to regulate what is healthy for him and he struggles to maintain a meaningful relationship with anyone in his life. At first glance, The Wrestler appears to be very plot-driven. Randy maintains a consistent goal throughout the film and spends most of his time pursuing it. He wants to reconnect with his daughter, resurrect his career and find somebody to love. However, he often acts against these interests, which is what makes him so fascinating to watch. The movie becomes more about solving the mystery of Randy than about seeing exactly where he will land. We don’t get a conclusive answer about what happens at the end, because his decision to risk his life is more important than finding out whether or not he survived.
The script by Robert D. Siegel is magnificent. In many ways it is minimalistic. There are no big monologues, arguments, diatribes or asides. The Wrestler says more with its subtext than most movies say with their text, but when I say the script is minimalistic, I am doing it a disservice. The dialogue is simple, but the action is complex and carefully laid-out. A lot happens in the film, and every moment is jam-packed with emotion. There’s a reason The Wrestler gets categorized more as a drama than a sports film. Rarely do we find this kind of undiluted sympathy for a central hero in a Hollywood film.
Randy is a sweetheart, but he appears somewhat monotonous. It’s the little details that fill out his character and make him concrete. His love of classic rock (an obvious allegory for the character being washed-up) is both plausible and charming. He reminisces about a time when Guns ‘n Roses was on top, before Cobain “had to come around and ruin it all.” There are a lot of moments like this, which add shading to Randy’s simple portrait; the way he clowns around with customers at the deli, the fact that he calls everybody “brother,” his hearing aid, etc. He’s not just a symbol of an over-the-hill athlete. He is distinctive and personable.
Darren Aronofsky’s direction is “show-don’t-tell.” Most of the film is shot handheld, with minimal scoring. It is painstakingly verité. No slow-motion, no dolly shots, no cranes. There are times when it almost feels like a documentary, stark and naturalistic. We are never told how to feel about the characters. They speak for themselves. Aronofsky does a great job of shooting the intimate tradecraft of the wrestler’s life. His approach is somewhere between fetishizing and satirizing, and I’m not sure it’s necessary to draw a distinction.
Mickey Rourke, who was once a fighter himself, delivers the performance of the century. He is completely at ease with the character and the lines come out effortlessly. There’s a lightness to his delivery. He might interrupt a painful confession with a laugh, while other actors would be afraid to do so, because they worry it would lessen the impact, when in fact, it strengthens it. Rourke doesn’t need to impress us with loud displays of technique. He simply speaks the truth, and when he looks into his daughter’s eyes, the sense of longing is unmistakable. He can communicate volumes by raising an eyebrow, and that is the mark of a legendary actor.
The women of The Wrestler match him frame-for-frame. Marisa Tomei gives her goofy stripper character a humanist touch; enthusiastic and kind with a recognizable sense of humor. She cares for Randy, but it’s obvious how conflicted she feels. She lives by a set of rules, and Randy wants her to break them. That’s her protective wall, and it is not easy for her to let her guard down, but watch how different she is in the final scene, when she catches up with Randy right before he goes into the ring. Her urgency, her sincerity, the realization that this is her last chance, are apparent from the few, short lines she speaks. She is no longer the sultry, mysterious stripper. She peels away those layers to show us the human being underneath.
Evan Rachel Wood is magnificent as well, employing incredible restraint and focus. She doesn’t just play moody teenager clichés. She mines raw energy and frustration, coupled with feelings of hopeless love for her father. This dichotomy splits her character, and it’s entirely believable that she could bounce from one feeling to the next in such rapid succession. Instead of playing Stephanie as a peripheral complication, Wood turns her into a person we care about. It’s a tough balancing act, and she pulls it off beautifully.
The Wrestler ultimately hinges on one decision; Randy’s choice to go back into the ring, knowing full-well it might kill him. Seemingly obligatory character-building scenes throughout the film help us to understand this final decision. Observe the scene near the beginning where Randy plays a vintage wrestling game with a local teenager, or the scene where Randy buys performance-enhancers off a local drug-dealer. All along, he runs up against reminders of his past. People recognize him as “The Ram”, his boss makes fun of him for wearing tights, etc. These moments provide insights into Randy’s mindstate, which is a kind of chronic nostalgia and insecurity. There is no escape for him. When he goes back into the ring at the end of the film, we understand why he had to make that choice.
The Wrestler is ultimately about the possibility of redemption. It’s about reaching out, the feeling that dawns on someone when they wake up twenty years past their prime, broken and alone. Rock bottom motivates Randy to risk it all. He has a lot of qualities that are less than admirable, but he aspires to overcome them. The film asks us if he can.