By Adam Nayman
Dir. Darren Aronofsky, U.S., Fox Searchlight
“You oughta see The Passion of the Christ,” says the burned-out fortysomething stripper to the fiftysomething broken-down professional wrestler, who agrees that maybe he should, noting that its subject “sounds like one tough dude.” Kinda sorta like him, right? Then she tells him that, with his long hair, he kinda sorta looks like Jesus himself.
This scene is one of several in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler—which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and has the prestigious closing-night slot at the New York Film Festival—in which screenwriter Robert D. Siegel feels compelled to lay his thematic cards on the table. See also the bit where Mickey Rourke’s character, a faded Hulk Hogan manqué named Randy “The Ram” Robinson, who supplements his stock job at a Jersey department store with increasingly grueling appearances on the independent grappling circuit (and who supplements his impressive daily training regimen with illegally procured pharmaceuticals), likens himself to a piece of meat.
The dialogue in these scenes is so blunt as to be almost laughable, and given that Siegel’s only previous writing credit is on The Onion Movie—which, if nothing else, gave us the enduring image of Steven Segal as “Cock Puncher”—one might suspect that The Wrestler’s inventory of sports-melodrama clichés isn’t entirely on the level. But even if this is the case, nobody told Darren Aronofsky, about whose filmography a lot could be said (or furiously scribbled) but in the interest of saving space and venom, let’s leave it at this: he’s not exactly known for his sense of humor.
If it sounds like I’m being unduly mean to Aronofsky and his fourth feature, that’s because I am: Aronofsky does well to tone down his rampaging technique (save for some conspicuous Dardenne shaky-cam at the beginning) and the film is pretty effective within its flea-bitten conception. And, as a showcase for Rourke, it’s downright terrific. There are those who might argue that casting is more than half the battle here, and that Rourke’s eroded physique and almost cubist facial features do most of the heavy lifting in eliciting the right combination of empathy, pity, and awe. That’s true enough, but more memorable performances have pivoted on an ideal marriage of performer and role than benefited from flagrant miscasting. Rourke isn’t just well cast in The Wrestler: he’s perfectly cast, and the performance is pretty much flawless, too. Randy the Ram exists in three dimensions, even though the narrative is framed as a solemn modern-Christ parable cartoon, a dichotomy that’s unintentionally literalized in the scene where Rourke plays a vintage NES wrestling game featuring his own pixelated doppelganger.
It’s telling that Randy, who has obviously squandered his career earnings, still has an original Nintendo system in his broken down trailer. The Wrestler works the analog-man/digital-world theme for all it’s worth, reminding us that its hero is a throwback to a (superficially) simpler time: the 1980s. As a childhood wrestling fan, I can confirm that the details we’re given about the character’s glory days (which coincide with the so-called “Golden Age” of the World Wrestling Federation) are convincing: the opening credits unfold as an exhilarating collage of fan-magazine headlines and other paraphernalia, most of it documenting Randy’s feud with a bad guy named “The Ayatollah” (ex-WCW star Ernest Miller), whose swarthy, mustachioed menace evokes the real-life WWF heel known as The Iron Sheik. Aronofksy also does pretty well by Randy’s present-tense vocation: anyone who has seen Barry W. Blaustein’s 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat, which juxtaposes the lives of successful big-league wrestlers with one demoted to the indie-circuit, will recognize the brutal bingo-hall milieu (and note that Randy seems at least in part based on the tragic flameout of Jake “The Snake” Roberts). The Wrestler is perhaps the only feature film that really gives professional wrestlers their due as workers and entertainers, showing how it’s possible for something that’s fake to entail some very real and very high-stakes commitment: the fights are fixed, but the falls hurt (even when your job consists of knowing exactly how to take them).
The Wrestler is at its best when it’s between the ropes. The wrestling scenes bring out Aronofsky’s (generally misapplied) facility for the visceral, and one sequence, which cross-cuts between a hardcore bout and its bloody aftermath, feels like an affectionate if overdetermined steal from Don’t Look Now. Aronofsky also does a good job with the dressing-room community: We get a sense of how the young guys breaking into the business idolize Randy, partly because they admire his endurance, and partly because they were all big Ram fans as kids. The film starts to get clumsy when it leaves the arena, however. Randy’s tentative romance with the aforementioned stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), occasions a couple of lovely bits but smacks of schematism—they’re both over the hill in their respective professions; they both struggle with the performative aspects of their jobs; they both have to compartmentalize between their stage personas and their real lives. And then there are the scenes featuring that walking kiss of death Evan Rachel Wood as Randy’s estranged daughter (of course he has an estranged daughter!). The only thing more inevitable than the scene where she finally drops her well-honed defenses long enough for her dad to make one last-stand plea for her sympathy (inspired, natch, by that old standby, the sudden heart attack) is the scene where he thoughtlessly violates her trust and gets told off for all time—with Wood swinging for the proverbial fences.
From there—there being that other old standby, Rock Bottom—there’s nowhere to go but towards the inevitable final showdown, which ostensibly pits Randy and his bum ticker in a one-time only rematch against the Ayatollah (who is shown to be perfectly affable when he’s not rocking curly-toed boots), but is really about the battle against one’s self. Or, if you prefer, it’s about “transcendence,” which was also the subject of The Fountain but got lost amidst the general cosmic silliness, floating orbs, etc. The Wrestler’s stabs in this direction are more credible, culminating in a moment that silenced the sold-out audience on the final morning of the Toronto International Film Festival: a literal leap of faith that gives a fetching tingle of understatement while simultaneously hammering home the point like a double-axe handle to the back of the head—which is also a pretty good description of The Wrestler, come to think of it.