If Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman can be considered the perfect encapsulation of crumbling manhood in ’50s America, then Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is the ideal contemporary companion piece—an equally crushing dissection of masculinity in free fall. Whereas increasingly impoverished salesman Willy Loman found his American Dream crushed under the weight of post-World War II responsibility, aging pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson finds his fame and fortune disintegrating in the post-millennial U.S. of A.
Acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) sheds his heady visual style for some single-camera grit appropriate to former Onion editor Robert D. Siegel’s lean-and-mean screenplay. Despite Aronofsky and Siegel’s commendable efforts, the awards-season attention (and there will be plenty) is sure to focus on star Mickey Rourke. A good two decades after his career was in high gear, Rourke delivers the kind of glorious, redemptive comeback performance that not even his immersive work in Sin City could have hinted at.
You see, back in the ’80s, Randy was one of the superstars of the professional wrestling circus. His 1989 bout with The Ayatollah is the stuff of sports-entertainment legend. But nowe—20 years on down a long, hard stretch of roade—Randy is a bulging mass of scar tissue, athletic tape and regret. Extraordinarily, he’s still wrestling, forcing his painfully abused body into a pair of sparkling tights and entertaining increasingly dwindling crowds in elementary school cafeterias and low-rent civic auditoriums.
Sure, he’s broke and desperate for whatever money he can get. Yes, it’s doubtful the guy could take up any other vocation at this too-late juncture. But Randy doesn’t seem to put himself though this for the cash. He’s still doing it fore—or deluding himself that he’s doing it fore—his fans. Back in the glorious ’80s, Randy had his own action figure, posed for the cover of national magazines and appeared in an NES video game. But those high times have long passed our grizzled warrior by and gone off in search of newer, younger, hotter stars with which to fraternize. And so Randy drifts from crappy gymnasium to crappy gymnasium, listening to Cinderella and Ratt, bleaching his hair, pumping himself full of painkillers and pretending it’s still the era of Reagan and WrestleMania III.
Despite its intimate scope, The Wrestler is tragedy writ large. Aronofsky makes us feel every visceral hit Randy takese—both in and out of the ring. Watching Randy sign up for a barbarous “extreme” wrestling match is every bit as rough as watching Jennifer Connelly walk into that party at the end of Requiem for a Dream. The drama is rendered even more brutal because each of these characters has volunteered for his or her particular stint in Hell.
On his days off, Randy chases after a past-her-prime stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, proving almost as fearless as her co-star). As most educated men know, paying strippers for lap-dances isn’t the best path to lasting romancee—but to a determined dreamer like Randy it seems perfectly logical. We wish Randy the best, but we have reason to suspect this will all slip out of his grasp.
There are glimmers of hope. A reunion with his long-estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) seems like a sincere attempt on Randy’s part to reconcile with his past. A long-dreamed-of comeback fight with The Ayatollah promises to materialize on the horizon. But an early reference to The Passion of the Christ hints at the sort of suffering we’re all in for.
No, The Wrestler isn’t a pretty or especially cheerful movie. But it is a completely engrossing piece of character examination. Its depiction of the real-life world of professional wrestling is startlingly authentic and quite sympathetic. Aronofsky nails the details, right down to Randy’s signature move, the Ram Jam. For all its raging pathos, Siegel’s screenplay never pities its hardworking protagonist. And Rourke? What can you say? Rourke gives himself over to the film, body and soul. No doubt the actor’s troubled past allowed him to give such an informed performance. The Wrestler will definitely make a lot of top 10 lists, it will probably win an Oscar, and it might just inspire you to dig your Rowdy Roddy Piper action figures out of the garage and treat them with a bit more respect.
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