It’s not often that near-perfect movies are made. Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is a near-perfect movie. In somewhat of a departure from his earlier films (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain), Aronofsky offers a glimpse into the life of an aging pro wrestler, a glimpse so real and human that the line between fiction and documentary is hard to discern.
The Wrestler tells the story of Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a former professional wrestling superstar still trying to hold on to the glory days of the 1980s. His fame in the '80s, however, came at a price. He alienated his daughter, put his body through hell, filled it with poison, and now lives in a trailer park as he struggles to keep on living while still feeding his old addictions. “The Ram’s” only friend is a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), also an aging “star” in her profession trying to survive in a culture that increasingly rejects her.
Though the story is a bit cliché, reminiscent of the last couple installments of the Rocky franchise, it’s never been told quite like this. With Rocky, the audience knows the outcome ahead of time. The Wrestler keeps us guessing until the final credits start to roll. Along the way the audience is taken on the ups and downs that Randy “The Ram” experiences as he tries to find life outside the ring.
The uniqueness of this film comes through the parallels between Randy and Cassidy. Again, both are aging stars in industries that value youth and vitality. Both live double lives. Both exploit their bodies so they can feel loved and wanted. Both are empty and lonely, looking for fulfillment and rescue from their lives as they are. But neither really knows how to go about finding that fulfillment and rescue. Randy tries to hold blue collar jobs at a local grocer, first unloading trucks, then working behind the meat counter, but the appreciation he is given there, or isn’t given, simply does not compare to the thrills of screaming fans and chants of “Ram Jam, Ram Jam.” Cassidy is trying to earn and save enough money to buy a new condo, leaving the club and the adult industry behind in order to better provide for and take care of her growing son. She remains bound, however, to the club and the need to feel wanted by the men she dances for.
The brilliance of this film is the simultaneous juxtaposition of these two characters. Each represents the redemption of the other, but in order to reach that point they must be united together. After the big crisis event of the story, there are brief glimmers of hope that they understand this and they begin moving toward that point. As their relationship grows deeper they struggle with facing new categories. Are they still dancer/customer? Are they friends? Can they be more than friends? Cassidy helps Randy try to salvage a relationship with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), Randy gives Cassidy a Randy “The Ram” action figure to give to her son, and both of their lives seem to be coming together nicely. Sure there are the normal growing pains of any budding romance including harsh words and hurt, but there are also moments of sweetness and connection that make the trials of relationship vanish in an instant.
The film reaches its climax when these two “broken down piece[s] of meat,” as Randy describes himself, must make the decision between the two lives they each lead. Will Cassidy give up dancing and live the rest of her life as Pam (her real name)? Will Randy “The Ram” leave the brutal world of professional wrestling and accept that Robin Ramzinski is who he really is? The cost for both Randy and Cassidy is the sacrificing of a significant part of who they are and who they have been for years, but the reward for such a redemptive sacrifice is the beginning of a new life together, a life which will bring the true love and fulfillment that each are looking for.
Without giving away the ending, I will simply say that the way in which the story resolves is quite striking and further solidifies this film as an incredible piece of art. The Wrestler is a very remarkable film that deserved all (and more!) of the award nominations it received this year.
The video on the Blu-ray release of this film is quite good, presented in anamorphic 2:35. Originally shot in 16mm, the picture has a washed-out, grainy feel to it, but this was a deliberate move by the filmmakers to give it more of a documentary look and feel. The audio is also done very well, presented in 5.1 DTS. The hair metal used throughout the film is pulse-pounding, and the crowds of the wrestling matches surround you, making you feel as if you are actually there watching the show.
The special features for this release are somewhat disappointing, simply because there aren’t that many. There is a music video for the Bruce Springsteen song, “The Wrestler” (how was this not nominated for a Best Song Oscar?), and two featurettes looking behind the scenes at the professional wrestling industry. The Blu-ray release also includes a digital copy of the film on a second disc. That’s all there is, however. It would have been nice for deleted scenes or a feature-length commentary to have been included.