I’ve been ruminating for days now, trying to let the nuances and overall effect of Darren Aranofsky’s THE WRESTLER wash over me. I’ve seen it twice now, and I’m a guy with a wife and soon to be two kids… I get out to the movies once or twice a year.
Is it good? Sure. I could quite simply state – “This movie kicks ass” or “THE WRESTLER will defeat you” or “See the re-animation of Mickey Rourke’s scarred and supposedly lifeless body” or some other bullshit like that – and be done with it, but this is a movie that resonated deeply with me.
Is it the age-old parable of the ageing warriors fight for acceptance in his twilight? Is it watching a man so wracked with self-inflicted physical pain and destruction wander aimless through an unexamined life? Is it the simple interplay of human characters, desperate for a connection in an increasingly over-sedated and underwhelmed culture? To tell you the truth, it could be all – or any – of those facets of this fine piece of humanist filmmaking. Then again, maybe it’s just a fondness for the sport that was a backdrop for my misguided formative years… Or it could just be that it is a damn fine film.
I believe THE WRESTLER is one of those confluences of fate and desperate passion that have given us some of the greatest moments in modern culture. While most are hailing it (over-simplistically) as Mickey Rourke’s defining moment and ‘long-awaited comeback’, don’t forget that this film is a ‘Hail Mary’ for almost all involved. Director Darren Aranofsky, after the cryptic allure of π and the wild, experimental fury of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, was already being touted as the forebear of a new revolution of smart, young and – according to the media hype – infallible, movie makers that were going to save us all. Zip ahead six years and Aranofsky had apparently channeled Franny Coppola or Cimino circa HEAVENS GATE and delivered the inscrutable, amazingly beautiful, but critically savaged film THE FOUNTAIN. According to all the usual Hollywood bullshit, he was a lost cause and dead in the water.
Likewise, Marisa Tomei, the lovely and always enjoyable multi-Oscar nominee/Oscar winner, hit the deadly age of 40 in 2004 and, while not unemployed, was delegated to bit parts and TV shows far from the spotlight being thrown on up and coming tween actresses and CW stars.
And we all know about The Mick… promising heart-throb actor of 80’s fare like DINER, POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, 9 ½ WEEKS and A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, left his Hollywood career at it’s apex to become a pro-boxer. Had his face pummeled and, after botched plastic surgery, is far from the pretty-boy who made women swoon in flicks like WILD ORCHID. He never really stopped acting and has decent credits throughout the 90’s and into the new millennium, but now he’s generally used as an ugly, mush-mouthed thug. After Rourke turned down flicks like RAIN MAN, PULP FICTION and DEATH PROOF, Robert Rodriguez managed to convince him to appear in ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO and then gave him the ultimate ‘thug’ role as Marv in SIN CITY. Once back on the radar, Rourke continued to flounder until Aranofsky, looking for the perfect person to cast in THE WRESTLER (replacing Nicholas Cage – worst casting ever!), snagged him for the role of Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson. So the real recipe for success here is the teaming of three artists fighting against the downslope of Hollywood hell. Three artists willing to bare their souls, sell their bodies and go against the grain for another stab at greatness. And thank the sweet Lord of Cinema, they have achieved exactly that.
Aranofsky goes totally against expectations and delivers a verité-flavored, no-flash, no jump-cut look at a broken man and his very broken life. The colour pallete is muted, the camera work is kept still and unobtrusive and the soundtrack is equally restrained. He focuses on the relationships and capturing tiny moments that reflect the joy and pain of The Ram’s day to day struggle to maintain an identity that exists 20 years in the past. These are intercut with loud, frenetic blasts of in-ring excitement, but even then, it is from the POV of The Ram, replete with whispered conversations between wrestlers, the subtlest winces of pain and well-placed homages to the real-life Wrestlers that the film is based on and around.
Tomei is naked for all the world to see. Literally and figuratively. She holds nothing back. The stripper/hooker/drunk with a heart-of-gold is one of the most treadworn clichés in the movies, but Marisa Tomei not only avoids the pitfalls of the cliché, she twists and remolds them to suit the character as if it has never been done before. Despite all the praise over the heart-tugging subplot involving The Ram and his estranged daughter, the most riveting emotional exchange in the film, for me, was when Tomei’s character opens herself up to The Ram and offers her friendship and her affection, hoping to save him from himself… the look on her face when… well… let’s not have any spoilers here, eh? Go see the damn thing and you will know of what I speak. I would like to know who the morons running these studios are. Who could possibly think she can’t play sassy and sexy?… Tomei is sexier and more breathtakingly gorgeous (in and out of her clothes) at 44 than any half dozen pantyless ‘starlets’ you could throw a paparazzi at.
As The Ram, Mickey Rourke captures the broken body, the bullheaded attachment to the past and the brutal commitment to self-destruction that plagues real-life ring warriors and fuses enough pieces of their reality into an amazing performance that is imbued with what you have to assume are Mick’s own tragic demons. More than anything, The Mick has captured the real pain, heartbreak and physical anguish that pro wrestlers put themselves through in the name of the sport they love.
Rocky legitimized the lower echelons of the sport of Boxing. Now THE WRESTLER can do the same for the jobbers who have entertained millions and millions of us for well over a hundred years. They deserve it. So go watch THE WRESTLER and know that every frame is filled with the blood, sweat and very real pain of the sport of wrestling, and the men it uses, abuses and frequently leaves behind.
That covers the movie itself, but what about the other aspects that have me so buggered by this flick?
Check out my further lengthy discourse on THE WRESTLER, pro wrestling in general and my experiences as a gym-rat wrestle-head in the mid-80’s by clicking right about HERE