LOVE. PAIN. GLORY.
Prior to this film, director Darren Aronofsky enjoyed recognition primarily from critics who loved his first film (Pi (1998)) or his second (Requiem for a Dream (2000)). This film, however, became a mainstream breakthrough for a filmmaker who rarely has chosen the easy path. He ended up picking washed-up actor Mickey Rourke for the lead, which turned out to be a brilliant move. Just like Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Rourke has now been granted a second chance in life.
Randy used to be big. He spent the better part of the 1980s as one of professional wrestling’s greatest stars. When we meet him, twenty years after those glory days, his star has faded. He’s still wrestling, but only on weekends doing various gigs for independent wrestling promoters in New Jersey. Randy keeps dreaming of his great comeback, but earning enough money to pay rent is a constant challenge. Most of his life still revolves around wrestling; when he’s not in the ring he’s preparing for another fight, buying steroids, pumping iron and working on his tan. Weekdays are spent loading boxes at a supermarket. He’s also trying to get closer to Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), whose real name is Pam; she works as a stripper at a local bar and is always happy to see Randy but considers him a customer only.
After a particularly gruesome fight in the ring, Randy suffers a heart attack and barely escapes death. His doctor tells him that his wrestling days are over, which is a great shock to Randy. He seeks comfort with Cassidy, but she tells him to reconnect with his long-estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). She, on the other hand, isn’t impressed with his first attempt…
Real life keeps interfering
The film largely portrays people who have turned abusing their bodies into a career. Professional wrestling may be a childish, incomprehensible game to most people over the world, but the movie shows the contestants suffering constant body blows. The animosity is fiction, the pain isn’t always. The woman Randy is attracted to engages in similar games; she makes men believe that the show she’s putting on is real. Both of them had the best time of their lives in the ’80s (they love bombastic rock anthems from those days) and now they’re always struggling to recapture some of that glory. Real life keeps interfering, posing both challenges and temptations to them, but they’re not strong enough to accept them.
For a while, the filmmakers have us (as well as their characters) thinking that a normal, healthy, happy alternative lifestyle is a possibility… but we’re all brutally pulled back into the inescapable. It isn’t easy to give up something that defined us a long time ago. As the end credits roll and Bruce Springsteen performs his terrific theme song, a great sense of sadness might overcome audience members, but perhaps there’s a nobility in Randy’s hopeless choices.
There are few surprises in this story, but it feels genuine, elevated by a documentary-like direction by Aronofsky and superior performances by the cast.
Tomei gives one of her best efforts as the stripper with a heart of gold, but this picture could not have been what it is without Rourke’s performance, so closely tied to the fate of his own career. Real-life professional wrestler Roddy Piper allegedly broke down crying in the star’s arms after watching this film. Apparently, it touches a nerve. Let’s just hope that unlike Randy, Rourke chooses a more hopeful path.
The Wrestler 2008-France-U.S. 109 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay: Robert Siegel. Song: “The Wrestler” (Bruce Springsteen). Cast: Mickey Rourke (Randy “The Ram” Robinson), Marisa Tomei (Pam/Cassidy), Evan Rachel Wood (Stephanie), Mark Margolis, Todd Barry, Wass Stevens.
Trivia: Several real-life wrestlers make appearances. Nicolas Cage and Sylvester Stallone were allegedly considered for the lead.
Golden Globes: Best Actor (Rourke), Original Song. BAFTA: Best Actor (Rourke). Venice: Golden Lion.
Last word: “I knew how to push the buttons. And I think that’s what [Rourke] wanted. To be pushed away from his fear you just had to challenge him, and then he would rise and he would keep rising. The more I pushed him, the better he would get. And that’s what was interesting, how much better. But another thing that method actors do is they do props a lot of times. They want to have something in their hands so kind of the greatest accomplishment in a joking way for me in this film was the fact that Mickey Rourke doesn’t wear sunglasses for one scene in the entire film, because in every scene he wanted to wear sunglasses to hide. And I’m like, ‘Mickey, people are coming to the movies to look into peoples’ eyes. That’s what they want to see. They don’t want to see a reflection of the camera; they want to see your soul, so no sunglasses.’ And there was a fight every day, every day.” (Aronofsky, About.com)