The prints of Darren Aronofsky’s new film, The Wrestler, have barely dried (or what is the digital equivalent?) and already it has won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and is on its way, possibly, to the Peoples Choice Award at Toronto. After the emotional and visual epic of The Fountain, the director has scaled the scope of his new film down to about as intimate as one can get (this sentence is amusing in and of itself considering the subject matter is Pro Wrestling). There are essentially three characters in the film, the stylistic tics are kept to a subtle minimum and the actors are simply allowed to perform. At the packed pubic afternoon screening in Toronto, Aronofsky, who was on hand to introduce the film, kept the words to a minimum saying simply all one needs to make a good film is a lens and good performers and that is what he has done here, due largely to a career high from Mickey Rourke. Rourke himself has seen enough trials and tribulations over his acting/boxing career that much of the weathering is quite naturally etched on his face and skin. Fulfilling the promise of his work in the 1980s (Johnny Handsome, Barfly) that was squandered with personal problems and junk-cinema starting with Wild Orchid and throughout the 1990s. While he made a fair bit of a splash covered in make-up and acting against digital backdrops in the testosterone-noir of Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (and for that matter, shines amongst the equally bombastic Domino), here he is given a role that allows for a gamut of emotions in a rich, patient bit of intimate storytelling. The actor has never shone brighter than here. But The Wrestler is no ‘comeback’ sports story. Rourke’s take on the public and private life of a (fictional) professional wrestler, 20 years past his prime yet still grinding it out in gutter venues, despite the protestation of an aging body, is a warm, generous, and sad portrayal. Likewise, Marissa Tomei, in a rich supporting role, continues to prove that she is one of the most talented actresses working today. Going as the stripper with the heart of gold is about as rote and cliché as one can get, but Tomei realizes her character as a full fleshed role, all the while being mostly naked up on screen. Yes, The Wrestler deserves every bit of praise it is garnering. Those worried that The Fountain (despite its cult audience) may have been a career killer, worry no more.
The Wrestler poses one of the most fundamental questions: what do you do when your entire purpose of being has been stripped away? Will you keep on keeping on even though it is now the mere shadow of past glories even if continuing is painful, potentially humiliating, and likely fatal? What is the cost of comforting over the difficult struggle into unknown territory? The story follows Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, who, back in the 1980s wrestling boom, was one of the biggest names in the business. Headlining massive stadium shows, Nintendo wrestling games designed on him, and all the fan worship he could handle (note to fans of great opening credit sequences, the information and mood are elegantly set in a scrapbook fashion here). But bad choices and tough breaks (perhaps the nature of the business, chewing up and spitting out the athletes while the money flows to the suits) and the inexorable passage of time has left him living in a hovel of a trailer park (where even still he has trouble making rent), wrestling on the lowest of professional circuits for pennies, and having work a day job stocking shelves during the week. Along the way he has a daughter, one he has neglected over the years (the mother is never mentioned). While he neglects his life, he is actually quite disciplined about his profession, even practicing it at the bottom of the food chain, a day in the life showing him making visits to his steroid and pharmaceutical provider, a trip to the hair dresser for blond highlights, an hour on the tanning bed and a solid gym work out. All this attention to the body, which then gets put through the meat grinder during the bloody matches in the ring where broken glass, razor wire, and other blunt paraphernalia are then used to smash and abuse the same flesh to appease the bloodlust of a hardcore crowd. His evenings are spent in bars and strip clubs where he has an almost-relationship with one of the long-time strippers, Cassidy (aka Pam) her own struggle with age impinging on the practice of her trade, she is old enough to be sent out of the VIP room by a horny bachelor party that is looking for someone younger. Much like The Ram, she seems to be more or less holding up, but her ‘glory days’ are well past her.
After a serious medical issue, the doctors are pretty explicit with him that his wrestling career is over. The Ram’s struggle to adjust to real life is the center of the film. A day job at (of all things) a meat counter, reconnecting with his 20 something daughter. Scenes spent first shopping for a gift for his daughter with Pam and later a pleasant afternoon with said daughter is the stuff of great emotional cinema. But despite being a pretty likable guy (he’s great with the kiddies), Robin Robinson (his real name), who even manages to excel in customer service at the meat counter, there is a lot of baggage that makes the shift to the real world a very difficult one. You can’t help but shed a tear for this guys problems, as the film really doesn’t dwell on Robinson’s ‘asshole’ years. An easy way out? Perhaps, but the rest of the story does speak for itself quite well. Finally a movie that knows the exact right place to end without glad-handling its audience with unnecessary extended endings. The film itself is a denouement to a story of universal resonance.
It was nice to see, like the director is telling a smaller story, that his regular composer, Clint Mansell has scored the film in an equally subdued manner. Most cinema goers are familiar to the point of irritation with his Requiem for a Dream score, which despite being a marvel of modulated assault (much like the film for which it provides the soundtrack) seems to be the muzak for every other science fiction and action film that has came afterwards. His Fountain score is equally operatic, but here he lets 80s stadium rock (as easy to please and skin deep as Pro Wrestling) do most of the musical heavy lifting. The film is even dedicated, of all people, to Axl Rose.
The Wrestler is built kind of like the sport that it is set in. The story is familiar, a bit shop-worn, even contrived, and perhaps a bit faked. While things are playing out on screen, it archives a genuine emotional workout: the best kind of cinematic magic. The film is a weepy and a crowd- pleaser in the best sense of both of those terms. It is a a solid and accomplished work which shows a talented filmmaker at the pinnacle of his career. While it may or may not do any favours to legitimize the modern cartoon that is WWE, it is a strangely positive love-letter to the sport (witness the charming ‘shop talk’ in the Wrestlers greenroom) and those who grind themselves away practitioning it