Saturday, April 30, 2011

Beat Down

Film: The Wrestler
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Darren Aronofsky’s films are not happy. I’m not saying that he’s untalented; on the contrary, I think he’s one of the most talented filmmakers currently working, and the buzz about last year’s Black Swan would suggest I’m not alone in that opinion. But he does make films that are difficult to enjoy. I respect his work, I even get excited seeing he’s the director of something, since I know I’m going to see something remarkable. But I don’t know if I can truly say that I’ve ever enjoyed watching one of his films. This was true of Pi, it was incredibly true of Requiem for a Dream, and it’s true of The Wrestler.

It would be a stretch to say that Mickey Rourke was born to play the title character in the film, but it certainly appears that he’s been in training for it the last 20 years or so—he looks like 10 miles of hard road. Our character is Robin Ramzinski, better known to wrestling fans the world over as Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Randy was one of the true superstars of professional wrestling in its 80s heyday in the world of the film, and now, in 2008, he’s still wrestling. That hasn’t changed.

Everything else has, though. For one thing, he’s 20 years older. And he’s no longer selling out Madison Square Garden. Instead, he’s wrestling in front of crowds of a couple hundred in Podunk arenas, and getting paid so little that he has a day job at a grocery store and frequently gets locked out of his trailer because he can’t make the rent.

What he wants, obviously, is back on top, even if he knows he can’t get there due to his failing body. In the ring, even going against newbies and wannabees, he’s still Randy the Ram. Outside the ring, he wears a hearing aid and glasses. Still, wrestling is the only thing he’s good at, and he always wants to put on a show. He does so every match, putting himself through incredible torture and physical pain to give the dwindling crowds the show that they paid for.

After matches, Randy frequents a stripclub called Cheeques, where he favors a dancer named Pam, stage name Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, who evidently did not use a body double for the stripping scenes). Like Randy, Pam/Cassidy has some miles on her, and not all of these are hidden by the lights of the club. We are introduced to her attempting to sell a dance to some guys who aren’t interested in her, since she’s evidently old enough to be their mother.

Randy also has a daughter named Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), from whom he is estranged. He’d like to reconnect with her, but he’s not sure how to do it.

And that’s the movie in a nutshell, sort of. Since this is an Aronofsky movie, you can expect that things will sometimes bump up a bit, but will mostly be on a rocket ride straight down to the basement.

What really gets the plot moving here is when Randy is reminded that the 20th anniversary of his classic match with an old foe named The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller) is coming up. His promoter would like to stage a rematch, because the gate might be massive, and Randy could really use the payday. Unfortunately, the Ayatollah has been out of the wrestling game for years and now owns a car dealership in Arizona. It’s possible he’ll agree to do it anyway, though, and Randy could really use the payday. However, he suffers a heart attack after a particularly brutal match, has an emergency bypass, and is told that he should never wrestle again.

And so he retires and attempts to make something of what is left of his life. He really attempts to reconcile with Stephanie, tries to get something going with Pam/Cassidy, and asks for more hours at his day job so that he can do something other than take beatings in the ring every week. And, this being an Aronofsky movie, everything he attempts is eventually doomed because Randy can’t get it through his brain that his glory days are long gone and that maybe wrestling should stay in the past for him.

I’m not a wrestling fan by any stretch, but it is the wrestling scenes in this film that are the most memorable. The matches are brutal. The first, with a wrestler named Tommy Rotten (Tommy Farra), involves Randy using a small piece of razor blade to slice open his own forehead because the crowd responds to the blood (and allegedly, Rourke actually cut his forehead with a razor blade for realism). Things get far worse in his battle against a wrestler who calls himself Necro Butcher (Dylan Summers). This is a hardcore match, which means that it involves a number of props for the wrestlers to use on each other. Necro Butcher, for instance, favors a staple gun, which he uses on himself and on Randy. Randy gets gouged with barbed wire, gets glass ground into his back, and his stapled what seems like a few hundred times all over his body.

This scene is the most difficult to watch, and is also the most Aronofsky-esque moment of the film. After this match, Randy is seen to by a doctor and has the staples removed from his body and the pieces of glass dug out of his back. Once finished, Randy slowly stands up and walks to the shower, and his body looks like a battlefield, covered in pits, holes, gashes, and scars. It is a testament to what Randy has done for his fans and his craft, as well as an indication of how violent and thrill obsessed his audience is.

Another telling scene for me comes a bit before this—we see Randy’s training regimen. This includes getting his hair dyed surfer boy blonde, stints in the tanning bed, and massive amounts of steroids and other supplements in both pill and injectable forms. He’s sold these, and offered half an additional pharmacy, by a man who is powered-by-anabol huge.

I’m not a Mickey Rourke fan. I think the guy had talent way back when and pissed it away trying to have a boxing career and prove that he was a tough guy rather than just being a really good actor and finding good roles for himself. Sometime after Barfly, he started taking worse and worse roles in poorer and poorer scripts. That The Wrestler might be the best thing he’s ever done doesn’t say much, sadly, since so much of his history is so bad.

That may be true, but it’s also true that his performance in this film is one of the great performances of the last decade. Randy the Ram is a real person, a guy who you’d really like to root for, a guy you want to see something go right for. He’s a modern, steroid powered version of Rocky Balboa in a lot of ways. He’s a loser, and despite once being famous enough to have action figures in his likeness and starring in video games, there’s a real sense of him being an Everyman who has been kicked around by the system.

I still can’t say I enjoyed watching an Aronofsky movie, but I grow more and more impressed with the man’s work the more I see it. The Wrestler is not just the best movie about wrestling you’re likely to see (although you should also hunt for the documentary Beyond the Mat), it’s one of the best sports movies ever made.

Why to watch The Wrestler: The strength of Mickey Rourke’s performance.
Why not to watch: There are moments of this film that are brutally difficult to watch.


  1. I never understood why Marisa Tomei won an Oscar for her performance in "My Cousin Vinny," but I loved her sexy, soulful, careworn performance here. And I agree about Mickey Rourke: he did a fantastic job in this film.

    Ever seen a reality show called "Tough Enough"? I don't know whether the show's still on, but a few years ago, I caught some episodes when my brother was watching MTV. I ended up watching nearly an entire season on my own.

    The show was all about a group of young hopefuls, men and women, who were competing for a choice contract with the WWE. What I loved about the show was that it gave me a clearer idea of what professional wrestlers have to put themselves through in order to perform, and as you described re: "The Wrestler," it's hellish.

    I normally can't stand reality TV, but every once in a while, shows like "Tough Enough" and "Fear Factor" come along and pull me in. Both of those shows distinguished themselves with their no-bullshit approach to competition: the events were so brutal (or brutal and disgusting, in the case of "Fear Factor") that contestants didn't have time for the puerile mind games that turn me off about most reality TV. "Tough Enough" was actually more about the bonding experience among the competitors as they marched through hell; it was almost touching, at times, to watch. For much the same reason, "The Wrestler" was touching, too.

  2. Marisa Tomei's Oscar is one of those things that has had an urban legend around it since about five minutes after it happened. The story goes that Jack Palance said the wrong name. Of course, that didn't really happen--there are too many checks and balances to make sure the right person gets the gold statue.

    Like you, I was puzzled by that award. I didn't really like her in that film at all. But here? This is a great performance. There is a real sense that the character is becoming too old for the profession she is in, and there is a sense of desperation in her, clinging to anything she can to stay in it as long as she can. Her relationship with Randy is a reflection of this--she can't get too close to him, because that would tear away the last vestiges of the veneer she's keeping up, that she's still able to perform the way she always did. It's subtle, and it's really good.

    Again, I recommend Beyond the Mat, even if you aren't a wrestling fan. The punishment these guys go through is unreal.