WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: Washed-up wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson ekes out a life working in a supermarket and taking on bouts in an attempt to recall past glories. A heart attack appears to put a permanent end to Randy’s wrestling career, but without anyone to love him or make sure he acts in his own best interests, he may not be able to resist one last, lucrative bout.
The Eighties were good to Robin Ramzinski (Mickey Rourke), better known as Randy Robinson or simply ‘The Ram’; he was a celebrated wrestler at the top of his game, culminating in the legendary showdown with ‘The Ayatollah’ (Eric ‘The Cat’ Miller). Twenty years on, Randy’s still plying his trade in the ring, but he’s watched by an ever-diminishing group of hardcore fans and the money doesn’t even cover the rent on his modest trailer.
Randy has a (paying) relationship of sorts with ageing stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), just about the only relationship he has since his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) doesn’t want to know. Forced to take on unglamorous extra hours at a local store to make ends meet, Randy is understandably interested in a nostalgic rematch against The Ayatollah, which offers one last chance to recapture the glory days in front of adoring fans. However, following a particularly cruel hardcore bout Randy suffers a heart attack, putting him flat on his back and making him re-evaluate his life.
As he recuperates, he slowly gets closer to both Cassidy, aka Pam, and even makes tentative steps towards a rapprochement with the reluctant Stephanie. However, the wrestling life and its attendant vices are never far from his thoughts; and when things get difficult, how can he turn away from the one thing that really makes him feel alive?
After the glittering, exotic indulgence of The Fountain, The Wrestler finds Darren Aronofksy doing the complete opposite, presenting a believable tale in a raw, naturalistic style. And there are absolutely no corners cut with the storytelling: the film is packed with real wrestlers to the extent that it occasionally feels like a behind-the-scenes documentary, and it’s fascinating – if not surprising – to hear them choreograph their bouts in advance of the fight; at the same time, the director reveals the brutality of some of the extreme fights, Randy adding to the pain by inflicting further injury on himself (cleverly, Aronofsky shows us the fighters post-bout first, or the tension would have been unbearable).
The recent past, too, is recreated in impressive detail, for example the posters, the old-fashioned VHS video covers, Randy’s ‘Wrestle Jam’ game for the Nintendo (with Atari sound effects!) or his action figure. More than anything, this is famously Mickey Rourke’s film, a role in which the actor and character mesh seamlessly. As the disfigured, damaged, washed-up former star, ex-boxer Rourke doesn’t seem to be acting so much as living out his own self-destructive life on-screen. He’s very good and makes you feel every bit of Randy’s pain, emotional and physical.
While Rourke dominates, he’s supported well by Wood as the deliberately distant daughter and even better by Tomei as Cassidy/Pam. The film draws a clear parallel between the leads, whose characters both debase themselves for the entertainment of others; Robert D. Siegel’s keenly-observed script offers them the tease of redemption and an alternative kind of fulfilment which lies just around the corner, yet heartbreakingly just out of reach (the contrasting scenes at the deli counter are superb).
But if the strength of the story lies in Randy’s addiction to either adulation or pain – it’s not quite clear which – it’s also the source of some of the film’s weaknesses. As a fellow human being, you want Randy to do well, to survive and thrive away from his arena of pain; however, you also have to acknowledge how deeply selfish and undisciplined he is, and also that Pam acts in hopelessly weak and conflicted ways (she has a son – so what?). What’s more, The Wrestler is another Aronofsky film which studies compulsive behaviour, and while it’s undeniably effective at showing a man unable to resist his drug of choice, it’s also symptomatic of a certain lack of originality. The film leans quite heavily on the first Rocky movie at least (and probably several of the others too), with a dash of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the family estrangement themes of dozens of TV dramas and films, not least American Beauty.
As a result, every painful, tense, impressive step The Wrestler takes forward is diminished by a sense that the viewer knows where each individual scene or the story as a whole is going. I admire Aronofksy’s story-telling skill and the way he followed the folly (as I see it) of The Fountain by filming this tale so simply; and I admire Rourke’s candour in laying himself bare as ‘The Ram’. On the other hand, for all its gruesome images I wish there had been something more memorable about the film, something that would’ve lifted it to the giddy, crazy heights of the brilliant Pi or Requiem for a Dream.