The Wrestler (2008)


Similar to the way that Peter Fonda is introduced to the audience in near music video form in Steven Soderbergh's underrated indie gem, The Limey-- another icon of yesteryear, Mickey Rourke (the man who should've been a contender) is introduced to the audience musically over a stellar credit sequence in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. Featuring heavy metal music inviting you to "bang your head" along, it only takes a few carefully edited snippets for us to gather that Rourke's character-- Randy "The Ram" Robinson-- was a hero of the professional wrestling circuit in the 1980s.

Like Fonda's set-up, the bravado of the man and the legend quickly gives way to reality although The Wrestler jolts us right from the start with a visceral opener that echoes the pathos, melancholy, and surprising bursts of charismatic humor of Sylvester Stallone in the original Rocky as we catch up with "The Ram" twenty years later, in present day New Jersey. Quickly after it starts, we're introduced to his "same shit, different day," lifestyle as our lead barely gets paid for his violent fights, just scraping by as a shell of the larger-than-life persona he once was.

As harrowing and intense of a character portrait as Ellen Burstyn's turn in Darren Aronofsky's earlier Requiem for a Dream-- while that film relished in hyper visual cuts that hearkened back to Fosse's All That Jazz-- this film goes for a seedier, docudrama look. Gritty and unnerving, shot hand-held with cameras propped on the shoulders of cinematographers on super sixteen millimeter to give it what Aronofsky told audiences in Phoenix a "provocative documentary style," it's Rourke's show all the way.

Presenting us with the contradiction of his once-great fighter now locked out of his trailer for failure to pay the bills on time, sleeping in his van, trying to jump-start his battle scarred body now aided by glasses and hearing aids with steroids and other drugs the wrestlers buy off one another-- it takes several minutes for us to get a head-on shot of the actor. Simply put, we follow his faux tough guy persona to his bleak existence, almost as though humanistically, it'd be too much to stare into the eyes of the man who tries so hard to fool audiences into thinking he has it all together.

Yet, the impressive physicality of Rourke in arguably his greatest performance cannot be denied and you know whom you're watching from the moment you first hear him cough as in many ways as-- countless critics have noted-- he's playing a character that he himself has routinely stated could've very well been similar to how he'd ended up when his life and career spiraled out of control after his '80s heyday.

A heartbreaker of a film-- Aronofsky lets it all hang out, showing us the opposite reality of the popular myth that wrestling is fake-- by alternatively awing and revolting us with the bizarre personality type of the wrestlers who are soft spoken and friendly as they prep, sometimes going over pre-choreographed moves or buying props together to do the most damage and give the best show yet always reminding us of the level of self-abuse that the sport requires.

This is especially apparent throughout-- whether it's in the tendency towards self-mutilation as Rourke's character pockets razor-blades and cuts a gash in his forehead to make a fight more thrilling or allowing himself to be shot countless times with a staple-gun in one of the film's most unflinching scenes. A master at toying with our emotions, Aronofsky chooses to heighten the effect of the latter fight by having it jarringly intercut to "14 Minutes Ago," going back and forth to illustrate how the wrestlers received each and every horrific injury on their bodies.

Rounding out the talented near-chamber like feel of a film that largely consists of three characters-- like Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby-- Oscar winner Marisa Tomei gives a brave performance as an aging exotic dancer who empathizes with Randy in a relationship that blurs the lines between romantic tinged friendship and professional courtesy as she gives him grinding lap-dances for money while listening to his troubles in earnest. Likewise, finishing off the trio of character actors, the talented Evan Rachel Wood (King of California) does what she can with a slightly underwritten role as his estranged daughter whom Ram has routinely let down over the years.

Highly authentic return to the same character based independent filmmaking that made this reviewer a fan of Aronofsky's roughly ten years ago when I first glimpsed footage of his Sundance Film Festival entrant Pi on Roger Ebert's television show-- as a member of the Phoenix Film Society, I was lucky enough to screen The Wrestler back in November with Aronofsky and Tomei taking part in a post-film discussion.

Revealing the intense amount of preparation that the lead actors including Rourke (who gained thirty five pounds of muscle and had to shed his boxing technique to learn wrestling and do his own flips) and Tomei who learned numerous steps to create "organic" and highly athletic exotic dance routines, it was fascinating to hear the two discuss the way that essentially the two careers we were watching were highly similar.

While both characters made a living with their bodies and used fake names, it was intriguing to dissect the different ways the two were dealing with their lives and career as both make attempts to try and settle things down, especially when "The Ram," undergoes an unexpected bypass surgery after the film's most grueling match. And although he ends up working in a deli for awhile until he faces the inevitable that wrestling is the only life he's known, Tomei's character seems a bit more "with it" on the surface by setting boundaries as she has tried to fool herself into thinking that she's completely in control.

Although the actress admits that compared to Rourke's character, she's "a few steps ahead," the troubling and instantly compelling thing about the film is that as they noted, it could be "any sport" up there on the screen as they deal with the same issues. Additionally, the director noted that the more wrestlers they spoke with about their lives, the more devastatingly similar to Ram's the stories became as the guys essentially work "350 days a year."

Offering a plethora of behind-the-scenes production information, I can only imagine that the film's special features will be well-worth investigating, not to mention that-- given its purposely grainy look-- it's good news to those who haven't upgraded to Blu-ray yet as the result will most likely look the same when it hits both digital formats following awards season.

While Rourke is a near lock for a Best Actor Oscar nomination and the movie just received numerous Golden Globe nods (including one for Bruce Springsteen's acclaimed track "The Wrestler" which he wrote for free for his friend Rourke) and Independent Spirit nominations, there's a definite question about how many mainstream audience members will be able to handle the film's intensely brutal, unflinchingly bloody sequences.

Yet, for those who brave the work-- even if you find yourselves (like a majority of audience members in my row), looking away at times, it's an unparalleled and riveting emotional tour de force. Not to mention that it's not only one of the best films of '08 but undoubtedly the type of movie that lingers in your mind long after it's ended as I can vividly recall certain frames roughly two months after I viewed it.

Download Bruce Springsteen's
Golden Globe Nominated Single
"The Wrestler" from iTunes

Bruce Springsteen - The Wrestler - Single - The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke on
Springsteen's Contribution:

In an interview with Uncut, he stated, "I wrote Bruce a letter, because we've known each other over twenty years, and he knows what I used to be, or whatever. Where I went. What I'd been reduced to. I told him how I felt lucky now and didn't have to end up being this guy, being Randy [character from The Wrestler]. A while later I got a call in the middle of the night: he said he'd written a little song, for nothing. It's f**king beautiful, right? I was honored he took the time, because he's a busy cat. I mean, I'm so goddam proud of this magical movie and to have Bruce's input… ain't nobody in Hollywood with all their millions can just ring the man and he'll do a song, y'know?"