dir: Darren Aronofsky
[img_assist|nid=23|title=Fear the Ram!|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=470|height=321]
It really doesn’t feel like you’re watching Mickey Rourke’s comeback to the big screen. It feels more like you’re watching his swan song. Rourke himself and the character he plays in The Wrestler are so intertwined that it becomes impossible to tell where Mickey Rourke ends and Randy “The Ram” Robinson begins, and vice versa.
Rourke himself has undergone a transformation, but I’m not sure all of it was for this film’s benefit. This isn’t his comeback, since it was only a few year’s ago that he was being lauded for his work in Sin City, but the strangest thing is that I realised watching this that much of what I thought was make-up and latex facework when he played the Frankenstein-like Marv in Sin City was anything but.
Violence, drug abuse of the legal and illegal variety and plastic surgery have rendered his face a curious mess, combining both hyper-feminine plumped up lips with deep scarring, peaks, troughs and leathery textures perhaps not so readily found in nature. In short, like many wrestlers, body builders, face lift survivors and plastic surgery addicts, he has become a grotesque parody of a human being. He is still, in a testament to his abilities as an actor, capable of putting those grotesqueries into the service of delivering a tremendous performance as a fading wrestler way past his use-by date.
As we are readily told by an introduction that plays out the highlights of his professional wrestling career through the posters of his heyday, Randy (he hates the use of his real name Robin) is eking out a miserable existence in the hinterlands of New Jersey. Twenty years after his peak, he’s still wrestling on the lowest level circuits, and is getting locked out of his trailer by his landlord. Neighbourhood children should be throwing rocks at him but instead they take pity on him.
Ends are met through working as a storeman at a supermarket, with a prick for a boss who piles the petty humiliations upon his already burdened shoulders. But Randy accepts them. The closest thing he has to a relationship is spending quality lapdance time with the stripper of his choice, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, in splendid form), who treats him like every other customer. He is estranged from his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), who seems to be his only remaining family and has barely enough memory of the cheering crowds of yesteryear, or enough gaffer tape to fix the holes in his jacket to keep himself warm at night.
In short, he is a pathetic figure, but I feel sorry for the audience member who doesn’t sympathise with his plight and where he is in his life, or with the pride with which he carries himself.
The American sports movie celebrates the winner on the way up (as in Rocky), or the winner who keeps winning (Rockys II and III), or the winner who triumphs over the Soviets and calls into question their entire ideology and system of government (Rocky IV), or the old winner who’s still got what it takes to humiliate his younger upstart opponents (Rocky V, Rambo), or finally the old war horse who’s still got what it takes and can hold his own (the inexplicable Rocky Balboa).
There really isn’t room for the broken and the discarded, the also-ran and the has-been in the sports movie canon, unless it’s somehow legitimised by a last minute against all odds victory. Something like this, in the hands of another director and actor with different motivations and intentions, could and would have been rendered trite or horrible. A lack of self-knowledge would have made this a grimly comic parody. Awareness is the key, as in of the self variety. Randy has no delusions about where he is, because he’s scrapping and scraping to get by. He can barely afford his trailer, let alone the steroids, painkillers and growth hormones that keep in the grotesque form he has become accustomed to and which are crucial to the remnants of his pro-wrestling career, even if it’s in the lowest circle of hell.
As the film begins, we see the aftermath of where he’s ended up, which is wearing the garish costuming of a pro wrestler and cleaning himself up in a room which looks like it’s an adjunct to a community hall with a childcare / crèche type room. Toys scattered on the ground. Much later on when he’s signing bits of merchandising and autographs for twos and threes of fans in a Veteran’s Hall with other similarly age and exertion destroyed wrestlers from the days of yore, he is able at least to judge that the difference between him and them is marginal, if it exists at all. Most are barely awake, missing limbs, blind, wheelchair bound or like him, half deaf and with lips Angelina Jolie would be scared of.
The circuit he is now on, so far away from the bright lights, stadiums, money and television appearances of the first tier (which is where the Vince McMahons, Hulk Hogans and Ric Flairs of the upper world still reside), and the sleazy manager who gets him brutal fights for pocket change, is all that he can really aspire to. It also points to a greater level of actual brutality in wrestling events whose only pull to audiences is seeing the old school washed up guys really fuck each other up for the crowd’s delectation. The sadistic carnival nature of the sport is laid bare.
It brings up a point that I guess is obvious to anyone who knows anything about the professional wrestling of the last thirty years, but which might seem like a sticking point to anyone else: of course the results are ‘fixed’, in the sense that the ‘fights’ aren’t legitimate contests between these princes of men, these kings of New England. Of course who is going to win and who is going to lose is predetermined, but the whole complicated entertainment industry of professional wrestling doesn’t negate the fact that in carrying out these matches, and through the abuse of steroids and hormones over the years, the toll it takes on their bodies and souls is real.
Rourke manages to look like a guy who has been put through that very wringer, but who also needs to keep putting himself through the wringer on a weekly basis to earn a living because of how far he’s fallen. So some of the time he’s fighting ‘matches’ that involve a lot of real blood and brutality, where the pin at the end signifying the winner is irrelevant.
In the film’s one lapse in subtlety, stripper Cassidy at an early point in the flick admonishes Randy for not having watched Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, and urges him to do so, because “that guy, like totally took everything they threw at him, and kept going”. Just by serendipitous happenstance, Randy seems to have a Tattoo of the Christ on his back, coincidentally.
Of course then we see him take a (voluntary) extreme wrestling beating that doesn’t look like it would have been out of place in Gibson’s carnage-fest. It involves broken glass, barbed wire, thumb tacks and staple guns, and is as hard to watch as anything else I’ve recently seen from the horror aisle of the local Blockbuster. Still, it manages to be grimly comic when the audience urges him to beat up on his opponent using an audience member’s prosthetic leg, “USE HIS LEG, USE HIS LEG!” becomes the crowd’s proud chant.
What a pounding his poor body takes. And then to add insult to injury, his heart decides it’s had enough, necessitating an enforced stay in hospital after coronary bypass surgery. The grim new scar along his sternum adds to the impressive array of wounds on display, but is also the final call for “Last drinks, gentlemen” on his wrestling career. He is told in no uncertain terms that his days even at the lowest end of the scale as a wrestler perforce must be over lest he die.
But even if it is the scuzziest, most bottom-feeding tier of this noble sport, Randy still needs it, needs the crowd’s buzz to make him feel alive. In a brilliant moment of filmmaking, in a film well made enough so as to do most of its good work unseen and in a non-showy manner, when Randy is forced to take extra shifts at the supermarket behind the deli counter, for the first time as he walks to his station, the scene is made to look (and sound) like he’s about to walk out to the ring, when what he’s doing is putting on a hair net and asking customers which number is next.
As he tells Cassidy about his heart attack, she urges him to seek out his family, mostly because she’s has no desire to be burdened with the health or lives of her customers. She might like Randy, but he’s mostly just another punter to her, one of the ever-dwindling number of customers who pay for the honour of having her arse wiggled in their faces.
You see, she’s got her own problems to worry about, like bringing up a kid, and working in an industry where her age and experience are not virtues, since that’s not what the punters want. She might be a stunning woman with a lithe body in her forties, but what (presumably, since I only ever see these places in movies and in games like the Grand Theft Auto series) the punters want is barely legal chicks with implants. And neither Marisa Tomei, nor Cassidy, nor Pam (her name away from the stripper’s pole) are barely legal or implanted with air bags in case of a car accident.
She’s mortal, and aging, just like Randy. And Randy sees in her some last ditch attempt at affection, not the illusion that she’s into him sexually or into his star legacy. But through her at least he tries to make amends with a daughter who she has a better chance of understanding than he does.
Stephanie is not really amenable, from having endured a lifetime of neglect on Randy’s part, to letting him back in her life, so she comes across as pretty bitter. Even then, Randy is given the chance to redeem himself, in the film’s most painful and heartfelt moment, which, I have to admit, at first bugged the hell out of me.
But I watched the film again, and I think Randy earns not his redemption, but at least a chance to even hope for forgiveness and an acceptance of his own life.
Perhaps I felt like this watching the film because Randy, despite how he lives does not spend much if any time bemoaning his fate or cursing the world for where he’s ended up. He knows he is responsible for his estrangement with Stephanie, that he knew what the consequences of his life would be which he embraced as willingly as he could, hoping for some fleeting glory, which is glory all the same. He also knows how the world views him, and he’s okay with that, mostly.
And, for me this is the kicker: his easy camaraderie with the other wrestlers, the manner in which he casually drops in a “how’s it going, brother?” as he is decent and genuine to everyone else in his business and around him, that he keeps approaching the world with some strange kind of optimism, kept me wanting the best for the guy.
It’s hard to explain. It should be easy to have contempt for Randy, and for Rourke as well, to have ended up at such a point where his fate and his character’s fates are hard to differentiate, but it’s even easier to admire him for what he still is, and for what he once was capable of.
The lure of ‘one last chance’ at modest glory is held out to Randy in the form of a rematch between himself and his ‘nemesis’ from the 80s, The Iron Sheik, sorry, I meant The Ayatollah is held out to him like the brass ring, but his health problems make him think he should be packing it in. It will have lethal consequences, we know it, he knows it. But does a guy like Randy really have anything else to live for, if you take away the only thing that makes him special?
And let’s not forget the single most crucial element that links both character and actor: they are both fuckups still capable of greatness. Randy’s drug abuses, steroid use and regular imbibitions of human growth hormone “not the Chinese stuff”, Randy asserts, are Mickey’s as well. The low points of subsistence living, scattered family and squandered potential are Mickey’s as well. I don’t think that fact was lost on anyone, least of all Darren Aronofsky.
I enjoyed every second of even frame of this film, and it deserves being called one of the best films of the year, without question. The choice to film much of the story from behind the protagonist, as if you’re watching much of the story through the third person perspective, is a master stroke that both increases the illusion of mundane reality that permeates the whole production, and makes it even more poignant when applied to the other people in Randy’s life. I guess from my perspective it helps to have been a childhood viewer of the kind of wrestling Randy seems to embody (being that 80s, WWF, Wrestlemania, Hulk Hogan, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Jake The Snake, Rowdy Roddy Piper era) which gives me a passing familiarity with that world.
I felt a whole range of emotions whilst watching this flick, and all of them embellished and enhanced what was a cinematic experience of startling poignancy for me. I’ve had much love for Aronofsky’s films in the past, and a lot of love for a number of Mickey Rourke performances that stand out as classics, but this was as much a revelation (insofar as seeing what Rourke has transformed himself into is quite frightening) as anything I’ve seen recently, even with its messy, elegiac yet casual feel. I don’t really feel that the other performances were that strong apart from Rourke’s, but they didn’t have to be for this to work. It’s only really about one person and the tattered remains of his quiet dignity, and that’s more than enough for me.
8 times I never thought a film about wrestling could bring me to tears out of 10
“I’ve got two words for you: Rematch!” – The Wrestler.