The Wrestler

February 6, 2009

He’s down and out. The world he has invested his life in has left him stranded. He’s just too damn old. He now has to pick up the pieces of what he left behind. Reconnect with the daughter. Make a move on the girl. Find meaning in things he didn’t pay attention to before. He discovers what really matters in life. The redemptive tale is well-trodden territory. The trailer for The Wrestler works very hard to give us the redemptive tale impression. The film isn’t strictly like that, but we can’t blame the marketing. After all, an action film trailer should show the exciting explosions, a comedy trailer should show the funny moments, and an “important, intelligent” indie film trailer should show why the experience will be palatable to a mainstream crowd. The Wrestler is better than your standard indie fare, however, and even though it falls into some pretty standard traps, I hope the trailer doesn’t put anyone off.

Mickey Rourke plays Randy “The Ram”, whose actual name is Robin (much to his chagrin), a professional wrestler who is twenty years past his prime. He barely makes ends meet by performing at local wrestling matches and picking up odd shifts at the loading dock of an area supermarket. He frequents a strip club to see Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a dancer much older than her colleagues and obviously nearing the end of her career in the exotic arts. A particularly rough match causes his age to catch up with him, and a heart attack follows, leaving him unable to function as he once did. His career basically over, he decides to make something of the life he has left by pursuing the stripper and reconnecting with his long-neglected daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). It is a pretty simple plot, and one can be forgiven for having expectations only for the performances to raise it above mediocrity. Surprisingly, the film is much better than it initially seems, and while this is in no small part due to the two central performances, it works really well on several other levels as well.

Of course, the acting by Rourke and Tomei is superb. The former most certainly deserves his Oscar nomination, and the latter can’t be faulted for hers. Rourke delivers the sad, charming performance we all expected based on the critical talk and the nominations, but it is far more impressive than a standard award-baiting turn. Randy is insecure and desperate for attention, yet he is also confident enough to make his success with both the fans and his acquaintances completely believable. He is the classic sad clown, finding enjoyment in showmanship (even in a job at a deli) whilst also unable to control his wounded pride when his past glories come to haunt him. Cassidy (Pam, outside of the stripper persona) runs parallel to Randy as the aging dancer, and while Tomei is far too beautiful for us to ever really believe that a client would be disappointed or disinterested, she does an excellent job of going through the same difficulties in a quieter, more responsible manner.

Despite all of this, the film is now without its flaws. The entire plot with his daughter Stephanie feels forced. This is due mostly to the writing, which requires the character to be angry and forgiving with no notice whatsoever. It isn’t helped by (the aptly named, har har) Wood’s performance, an actress that I’ve never been convinced by before and her inability to even halfway salvage this part doesn’t help improve my opinion. The first time he looks up his daughter, she’s blankly upset with him, and the second time, she’s won over very quickly. It feels as though we’re supposed to fill in the gaps of their time together so we understand her acceptance of him when it suddenly happens. Cassidy also has some leaps to make, as her reactions to Randy exist only to push his character arc forward. These moments are only saved by Tomei’s ability to sell the character, as she understands what she needs to do in a supporting role in a character drama, which is something Wood hasn’t quite learned yet.

An intimate character drama is not the type of film you would expect the director, Darren Aronofsky, to make. It isn’t surprising, considering the self-indulgent failure of his last venture, The Fountain. What impresses here is that he’s got talent beyond visual pyrotechnics. Pi was an interesting, paranoid thriller that was more or less made by his visual trickery, and Requiem for a Dream was the same, only substitute ‘paranoid thriller’ for ‘soul-crushing death-spiral’. The Wrestler is a far more subdued film. He’s content to hold on to the handheld style, but the framing is deliberately closed, allowing the audience to share in the feeling of living in a small world when not in the ring. The film really opens up when Randy is in the ring, as one would expect, but the second fight affords Aronofsky the chance to show his restrained, virtuoso power. The sequence seems to go on forever to show us the gnarled, grizzly, and depressing fetishistic aspects of the wrestling match. This isn’t just about working out moves beforehand to please the spectators; this is about real pain to satisfy a bloodlust.

The film moves forward, hitting all the predictable highs and (mostly) lows of Randy “the Ram”, but even when it is obvious and occasionally a little sloppy, Rourke manages to keep us with him every step of the way. The ending itself is something beautiful all its own, neither the triumphant success we might have felt it was building towards nor the unbelievable let down the characters didn’t deserve. In fact, it ended on exactly the moment I sat in the cinema thinking it should, which was a rare treat considering how many films just go on and on after they’ve finished telling their story. No, this film ends just when it needs to, fully respecting everything that came before and leaving the audience in just the right place. It isn’t about redemption, or making up for lost time, but about how a character that is not only unsure whether he can move on, but even if he actually wants to.

-M

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2 Responses to “The Wrestler”

  1. Frances Says:

    Hello!

    Just had to say, great review by the way! I think you summed up everything you need to know about this pretty sweet film. I absolutely agree with you, Rourke was brilliant, he delivered such a touching and charming performance. Not so sure about Tomei though. I wasn’t really that convinced by her performance, particularly in the scene before his final showdown. If I was ‘Ram Jam’ I wouldn’t have been convinced either! It wasn’t bad, I just think it was eclipsed by Rourke!
    The violence is so fetishistic isn’t it? It is so raw and visceral, I didn’t know wrestling could be that bad! I did find the staple gun to be quite a good laugh though!

    Thanks for that, hope you both keep up the good work!
    – F

    (p.s. The ending was fab!)

  2. chiaroscurocoalition Says:

    I think Tomei does exceptionally well with a very under-written role. Yeah, she still has to make the desperate drive to the match to stop him, etc…, but her performance raises the part above the writing. It’s a testament to her more than anything else, as the difficulty in a supporting role is always going to be getting more from less. Wood’s performance is a good counter-point: another poorly written, 2-dimensional character that completely dies on screen as the actress doesn’t have the chops to make something better out of it. I shouldn’t be so harsh on Wood, though, as she might do something really great some day, and it really isn’t her fault that she’s just not as great as Tomei.

    I thought that staple-gun scene was great. It starts off quite comical with the shattered glass and wondering where the hell that giant ladder came from. But turning it around on itself with the flashback to show the grueling, degrading, and intense nature of the fight to slowly drain whatever amusement we might have initially felt worked really well (even if I have reservations about throwing that device into the film so abruptly and abandoning it immediately after).


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