A few weeks ago Howie mentioned Darren Aronofsky's 2008 The Wrestler on the pod and although I largely try to ignore the detritus that falls from his slack jawed gullet, he did inspire me to revisit it and chuck a few hundred words down about this critically acclaimed and award winning drama. Not because I feel like I have anything new to say about it but just because this movie is amazing and if I can convince even a single person who hasn’t seen it to watch then I count that as a victory of sorts.
The world of professional wrestling is a bizarre one, requiring a complicity between the audience and the entertainers where we acknowledge both the simultaneous and contradictory falseness and realness of what we are viewing. Yes the matches are scripted and the results are predetermined but this does nothing to diminish the seriousness of the physical and mental toll these guys inflict upon themselves, night after night in pursuit of their art. And if you’ve ever watched any of the documentary series such as Beyond The Mat (currently showing on Netflix here in the UK), you will know that for many grapplers steroid and opioid abuse is rife, home lives are frequently disrupted or destroyed by years on the road and the lifestyle these guys enjoy frequently leads to an early and tragic death.
If you are not part of the wrestling elite such as the WWE then many wrestlers find themselves in schools or local gyms tussling with each other for a few hundred dollars at a time. This is the point where the movie starts: we’re shown a montage of clips and magazine articles indicating that at some point Robin Ramzinski, better known as Randy “The Ram” Robinson was a celebrity in the early 80’s but now, past his prime, he works the independent circuit, brawling at the weekend while working part-time at a local supermarket.
Randy’s life is in pieces; so broke he can’t pay the rent on his trailer, estranged from his daughter (a convincingly damaged Evan Rachel Wood), chasing a relationship with stripper Cassidy (Marissa Tomei) and in near constant pain as a result of injuries incurred on the job, Randy suffers a heart attack backstage after a particularly gruesome hardcore match with real life deathmatch legend Necro Butcher. His doctor tells him to stop taking steroids and heartbreakingly orders him not to wrestle anymore which he reluctantly agrees to.
His life completely devoid of any meaning outside of wrestling, Randy attempts to woo Cassidy – real name Pam – who gently but firmly explains that she is not available. Cassidy and Randy’s occupations are two sides of the same coin: they both have a stage persona, they both put on a show for the delight of the customers and there is a chasm between their professional and personal lives which they struggle to fill. At Cassidy’s insistence, Randy tries to repair the relationship with his daughter who he has abandoned through a combination of his pursuit of his passion and hedonism. Later in the movie we see Randy self-destruct after getting drunk, snorting cocaine and having sex with a wrestling groupie, causing him to miss a dinner with Stephanie that destroys the fragile bond they had been developing.
The tipping point in the movie occurs when, demeaned by the manager at the supermarket and recognised by a wrestling fan while working at the meat counter, Randy jams his thumb into the meat slicer smearing blood all over himself and tearing off his uniform in an echo of his ring entrance. With nothing left in his life Randy decides to return to the ring to complete a rematch 20 years in the making with his in-ring nemesis, a convincingly xenophobic character known as The Ayatollah played by Ernest “The Cat” Miller. During the match Randy periodically clutches his chest in pain and becomes woozy and unsteady. Refusing to end the match quickly, Randy instead climbs to the top ropes to perform his signature move, a diving headbutt known as “The Ram Jam”. With tears in his eyes as the fans chant his name he leaps from the top rope and the movie ends.
Has there ever been more perfect casting than Mickey Rourke for this role? He has the physique, the facial scars and the eyes of a man who has endured more than his fair share of physical and mental punishment. He appears to perform many, if not all, of his own stunts which are frequently spectacular but it’s the details outside the ring that make the character: a hearing aid he wears presumably after receiving one too many chair shots to the head, the comical sun tanning and hair bleaching that makes up a wrestlers beauty regime, his charismatic presence, the tortured expressions as a result of his many injuries both bodily and emotionally. I cared for this character unlike almost any other character I have seen before and the story’s denouement left me utterly wounded and winded. It’s quite something to imagine the version of this film that almost was, with Nic Cage playing the titular character.
Aronofsky’s use of hand-held camera work imbues every shot with an authentic minimalist immediacy that lays bare the reality of the wrestling lifestyle in the same way as Rourke’s terrific performance lays bare the soul of a man who quite literally dies for his art. Watch The Wrestler and experience pain and drama that feels as raw and authentic as anything you have ever seen.