After Slumdog Millionaire, I didn’t think I’d see a more emotionally engaging film this year. But The Wrestler tops it, slams it, and does the Ram Jam on its face in that regard. Mickey Rourke is back, Darren Aronofsky has made another classic, and this is the one time where I saw a big man cry, and I could not be the bigger man who laughs at that man. Because I was touched. I’d forgotten it was Mickey Rourke, and thought I was seeing Randy “The Ram” Robinson.
The Ram was a wrestling superstar in the ’80s, when it was at its biggest. I was never a fan, but I watched anyway. It was inescapable. I remember Sergeant Slaughter, The Iron Sheik, guys dressed as ninjas, Jake the Snake, Andre the Giant, Rowdy Roddy Piper in his kilt, and of course Hulk Hogan. At the time there was great controversy over whether it was “real” or not, which seems quaint now. We were so naive about what happens off camera. Wrestling is theater- it’s not so much a competition. It’s a Face vs. a Heel, bashing their faces on turnbuckles and body slamming each other for our entertainment. That’s real enough- they don’t have to really hate each other, or really try to kill each other. Find a copy of Beyond the Mat and you’ll realize it’s as dangerous and “real” as being a linebacker. They aren’t trying to kill you, but you’re doing something that the human body was not meant to tolerate as often as you’re doing it.
With that out of the way, it’s 20 years later and Randy the Ram now wrestles at Rec centers, goes home to his trailer, and plays with the neighborhood kids. He goes to a strip bar where he’s friendly with a dancer named Cassidy. She’s played by Marisa Tomei- looking more worn but just as sexy as she was in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and once again embodying a role so perfectly that you think she’s just another Jersey girl swinging from poles to make a buck. She wants to keep their relationship strictly business, but sees a sweetness under Ram’s grizzled exterior, and he’s not like the others; he uses his body as a piece of meat, so he doesn’t treat her like one. Let me say this, I think Tomei gets an unfair shake- it’s a meme that her Oscar for My Cousin Vinny is the “least deserved” one awarded, and I disagree completely. Comedy is hard. And not once in that movie do you look at her and say “ha, Marisa Tomei trying to be a foomatza broad.” It wasn’t until In the Bedroom that she got taken seriously again, and it’s good to see her getting good roles like this again.
They’re both performers- he works a crowd in the ring, she works the stage, the floor, the champagne room. But he sees in her the parent he never was. She has a 9 year old son, and her work is for him, her life revolves around him; while Randy has an estranged daughter named Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood, Across the Universe). After an injury in the ring, he seeks her out, and this is where the film builds its deepest emotional power. Randy has made a lot of mistakes in his life, and like Rourke himself, he wears the scars on his face. When he does track his daughter down, the film doesn’t play us for suckers. As anyone abandoned by a parent will know, there are wounds that won’t heal. But they make contact, fittingly at the ruins of Asbury Park, silhouetted against the sea in a shot similar to the dream sequences in Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Some things are beyond forgiveness, and as in Gran Torino, not everyone can be redeemed; but Randy and his daughter come to an understanding that rings true.
Randy’s promoter wants him to do a 20-year anniversary rematch with The Ayatollah; the idea of playing to a real crowd, and capturing the glory of the old days is at the front of Randy’s mind, but he’s not sure his body can take it. He’s trying to put his life together, to have something more than playing Nintendo with neighborhood kids in his trailer, and paying Cassidy for her time. But the plot is not what makes the film engaging. Aronofsky films it with an almost documentarian feel, as we follow Randy through his life. Backstage, preparing with his fellow wrestlers, and even working at the local deli counter when money is thin. It never feels like a mere veneer of reality. Much has been made of Mickey Rourke actually performing his own stunts, and that certainly helped make the ring footage look as real as it does, but the director’s camera and choices had a lot to do with it as well. Mickey made The Ram, but Darren Aronofsky told the story like a master- by letting its characters speak for themselves.
There are a lot of choices that he made that helped the movie. Fighting for Mickey to get the part was only one of them. The movie is set in New Jersey, in Rahway, Elizabeth, Garfield. Industrial and blue collar neighborhoods. The classic Jersey decrepit railroad bridges are everywhere. There’s a scene at a payphone with an abandoned railroad tunnel behind it that sets the tone perfectly. Falling apart, like Randy. Asbury Park’s lost former glory. The soundtrack is all ’80s hair metal like Accept’s “Balls to the Wall” and the perfect choice of Guns ‘N Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine” for Randy’s big bout. He and Cassidy talk about the music of the late ’80s and how it got swept away by grunge, and that G’nR song was hair metal going down in one last blaze of glory. The end title is by Springsteen and is one of his better recent ballads. There are other little touches; Randy drives Ram van, of course, has an action figure, and they even made a Nintendo wrestling game with him in it. It’s exactly the sort of relic one would have if you were a pro wrestler in the ’80s.
The wrestler cast is mostly, if not all, former and active pro wrestlers. You can’t fake that kind of body, and Rourke’s late-in-life boxing career helped make him perfect for the part. He’s been in the ring, and knows that unlike acting there are no second takes. He’s done the walk from backstage, knowing thousands of bloodthirsty fans are out there wanting to see you get punched in the face.
“The Man in the Arena”
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
The Wrestler is one of the year’s best films, and the best drama I have seen this year. If anything, Mickey Rourke’s performance is the most natural, courageous, and one where emotions are laid most bare. Let’s hope the Academy does the right thing, it would be great to have Mickey back. At the least, whether you like wrestling or not, go see this as one of the best movies of the year. A small story, of a has-been, finding out what he’s made for. I guarantee it won’t leave you unaffected.