“Broken, bleeding and beautiful”
I have always been drawn to characters that have trouble connecting to the world around them; it is strangely comforting—cathartic even—to see them struggle with people and society. This can be handled with a light touch—as it was in Edward Scissorhands—where we can sympathize with our alienated protagonists, and wholeheartedly root for them, without it costing us too dearly. And then, there are the misfit stories that are dark, heavy, and deeply troubling, where a character’s pain is less abstracted, closer to home, and has a razor-sharp edge. The Wrestler is such a film. Rarely have I so desperately wanted a character to “get it right.”
Randy “the Ram” (Mickey Rourke) is an aging pro-wrestler who has seen better days. Years of abuse are written in his scarred flesh and lumbering demeanor. When Randy suffers a heart attack—a consequence of the many years of drugs and beatings—he realizes that the demands of his wrestling lifestyle will kill him, and re-assesses his life. Distancing himself from the wrestling world, he tries to re-connect to his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and initiate an intimate relationship with a local stripper (Marisa Tomei). He has spent years pushing people away in favour of his career, and now wants to settle down and have a family. This turns out not to be so easy. His daughter is angry and hurt from years of neglect, and the stripper is worried he can’t see past her stripper persona to the reality of her as a single mother.
This was Darren Aronofsky’s fourth feature. Aronofsky had made a name for himself with intense, innovative and flashy films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream. The craft of his previous films was showy, and by comparison, The Wrestler seems remarkably restrained. The focus is clearly on Mickey Rourke’s performance, and the camera clings to him obsessively. There is no surrealistic imagery, no frenetic editing. The naturalistic, hand-held camerawork does not draw attention to itself, but just enables us to follow Randy as closely as possible, tracking his entrances and exits. There is a great deal of emphasis placed on arrivals and departures—gynasiums, theatres, bars, grocery stores—so that we find ourselves equally trapped in the same patterns of movement as our protagonist, the same oppressive reality of time and space. When we need to get groceries, we can’t just jump-cut to an aisle, grab a can of peas, and jump-cut back to our living rooms. We need to put on shoes, a jacket, make sure we have our keys and money, walk out a door, down a road, through another door, find the right aisle, and so on. The Wrestler, at just the right moments, forces us to accompany Randy on these mundane journeys so that we become intimately familiar with the gritty realities of his life.
While not as technically elaborate as previous films, there is a clearly defined vision driving The Wrestler. Aronofsky commits fully to the simple reality of Randy’s plight—letting his pain, joy and charm carry us along. He also lets the camera linger on the telling details of his scarred flesh, the brutality of his profession, and the naked pain of his struggle for acceptance and companionship. Like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film is a masterwork of visceral expression, perfectly capturing the unsettling truth of our vulnerability—we are walking-talking sacks of meat that can be sliced open and pounded flat. The film shows us the direct relationship between our emotions and our bodies, how vulnerability begins in the flesh, and seeps ever inward into our consciousness.
Mickey Rourke’s performance is heartbreaking. He lays himself bare—defeated, lonely, and bruised. Despite the history of brutality they represent, I found myself strangely attracted to his weathered face, his strong yet ragged body, and his guarded yet sincere affections. Randy’s attempts to connect to the world—outside of the ring—are gut-wrenching. After several failed attempts at re-establishing family ties, he finally decides that he and the world are not a good fit, and retreats back into the arduous wrestling lifestyle. He knows his heart won’t hold up to another big fight, but it is all that makes sense to him; it is where he feels understood and accepted, where he doesn’t have to beg for companionship.
There is something unbearably sad about The Wrestler. After much reflection, I think I’ve finally hit on it—the film makes you aware of how fundamentally success hinges on good timing. Will and determination are not enough; we must also get lucky. With human relationships, our struggle is ongoing and on shaky ground. We must accept our smallness in the face of infinite possibilities, and make strides in whatever direction seems right at the time, but that does not mean that the people we care about will move at the same time or even in the same direction. What is right for us is not necessarily right for others. To lie to ourselves—and the world—by pursuing a course of action that doesn’t feel right could corrupt our own being and our relationship to the world. And so, being honest with ourselves, and trudging ahead, we can only hope that our trajectories compliment the trajectories of the people we love.
The Wrestler is not hopeless; it is an illustration of tragically bad timing.
The Wrestler (2008)
Director: Darren Aronofksy
Writer: Robert D. Siegel
Stars: Mickey Rourke, Mariso Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood