The Wrestler - a (rare) movie review

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The Wrestler - a (rare) movie review

Post by Ebon on Sat Sep 26, 2009 8:26 am

Well, I finally got around to seeing Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. Beware, here be spoilers.

The basic story is that of faded pro wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke), unable to retire, playing to smaller and smaller crowds and trying to get his life in order amid health struggles. Among that, he also has a budding relationship with aging stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and an attempt to repair his relationship with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).

Let's get this out of the way first: The film is superb. It's a genuine classic, the wrestling equivelent and equal of On The Waterfront or Raging Bull. While Tomei and Wood deliver great performances, it's Rourke's aging, frustrated and regretful Randy Robinson who reminds the audience that Rourke genuinely is a world-class actor. In a contest without political considerations, Rourke's performance would have brought home an Oscar (and that's meaning no dissrespect to Sean Penn). By turns, sympathetic and infuriating, Rourke's portrayal could not possibly be bettered. That's not to short the other stars; Tomei's conflicted stripper and Wood's heartbreaking turn as a continually disappointed Stephanie are both excellent but The Wrestler is Rourke's tour de force, his entry into celluloid immortality.

The film is a love letter to pro wrestlers but, unusually for such a film, doesn't shy away from showing the very sleazy underside of the wrestling business. The carny nature of pro wrestling is shown in full, from the drug infested locker room to the failed personal relationships to showing how a gigging blade is made (a small concealed razor that wrestlers use to draw blood), the movie is an entirely faithful portrayal of pro wrestling on an independent level with everything that implies. Even disregarding the numerous cameos from real wrestlers, the characters populating the locker room will by totally familiar to anyone well acquinted with wrestling: The muscle-bound Dr Feelgood who hooks everyone up with their steroids and painkillers; the sadistic, bloodthisty Necro Butcher who turns into the polite, well-spoken Dylan Summers once he gets through the curtain; the fiendish foreign stereotype The Ayatollah (real name, Bob, a pleasant car salesman from Tampa). Even if they haven't met the real life wrestlers playing the characters, everyone familiar with wrestling knows these guys. For a film about such an overly macho business, it can be surprisingly subtle. The paralels between Randy's profession and Cassidy's are never explicitely stated but, like Stephanie's ambiguous sexuality, on second watching, they become obvious. Both professions are reliant on the mixture of physical style and substance; both involve mixing with casual criminality and ultimately, both are about putting on a performance for an audience who will never really know you.

Randy's dilemma is one every wrestler or wrestling fan knows. Despite an aging body and fading payoffs, despite a steady day job (albeit with an obnoxious boss) and serious health issues (Randy suffers a heart attack midway through the film), Randy simply can't let it go. He can't retire because being a performer is all he's ever known. He can't learn new tricks and he can't let go of the spotlight because, as Harley Race put it, "there's no better spot in the world, than under those bright lights". Because when he pulls on his trunks, goes through his pre-match ritual and walks to the ring surrounded by fans, there is no high on earth that can compare to that. A steady job, no matter how well-paid, will never give that high.

The Wrestler is, at heart, the story of a man who has given his whole life to the wrestling business. In the pursuit of that, he's lost his marriage, his relationship with his daughter and at the end of the movie, it's implied his life. But he can't give it up. After his heart attack, Randy tries to retire but having spent a life in the spotlight, he can't just settle down and walk away and, having blown his final chance to reconcile with his daughter, he gives up trying to be something else. In the same way as Eastwood's Unforgiven was about a man who tried so very hard to be something else, The Wrestler is the story of a man who tries and fails to become something more. In the climatic rematch with The Ayatollah, Randy suffers a second heart attack but, high on adrenaline, pushes himself to keep performing. When he climbs the turnbuckle to throw his signature RamJam (diving double forearm), the camera looks up at him. On top of the world, in a heated match with his favourite opponant, fans chanting his name, the casual viewer finally understands why wrestlers put themselves through this torture. Because there is a kind of nobility here, a kind of glory. Because nothing in Randy's life will ever equal that moment signalling for the RamJam, with the fans cheers ringing in his ears, about to score a climatic pinfall. Randy leaps....

And we fade to black. When the scene was originally filmed, Randy hit the RamJam and scored the pin but never got up. Edited this way, the finale is more ambiguous but the clear implication is that Randy dies. On reflection, it's clear why Aronofsky cut it this way; the pinfall was superfluous, an anticlimax. It's that moment, atop the ropes, that encapsulates Randy's life. And the character of Randy had to die at the end. Because what could he do afterwards? He tried to be something else but in the end, he was a wrestler, a carny and no matter what uniform you put on him, he would always be a wrestler. Aging and battered and lived more nights than days but always a wrestler. Like Mitsaharu Misawa (who died in similar circumstances a month before I saw the film), Randy died the way every wrestler would like to go: In the ring, winning the match, the fan's love riding on your shoulders (one can clearly see randy struggling not to weep). Randu could have lived. He could have become a footnote in a "Where Are They Now" column, a pro forma obituary in the Wrestling Observer. By choosing to die as he lived, Randy becomes a legend, living forever in that moment he dives from the ropes. Every wrestler, if they're honest, has wanted to die the same way. Some of us are just unlucky enough to have to carry on afterwards.

See this film. Buy, rent, beg, borrow, steal or torrent it but see it. Every sport (and if gymnastics is a sport, so is wrestling) has at least one classic movie in them. This is wrestling's.

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Re: The Wrestler - a (rare) movie review

Post by TPaine on Wed Jan 06, 2010 8:45 pm

Some have said that the Randy Robinson character was loosely based on Jake Roberts. I haven't seen the film yet so I don't know.

There are reports that Mitsuhara Misawa did not die from a heart attack as originally reported, but from a cervical spinal cord injury cause by a blown back-to-back suplex by Akitoshi Saito. I haven seen a video of that match either, so I haven't seen if the move was actually blown.

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