Darren Aronofsky directs disturbing films, and it isn't always clear that the disturbing bits have any real purpose other than to disturb. In The Wrestler, I've found a purpose, but I'm not sure it's the purpose Aronofsky intends, if he intends one at all.
Consider his first full-length film, Pi. It's a masterfully-made film, so good I thought it might be a fluke until Aronofsky's next film was even better. And yet the climax — and I'm sorry if you've not seen it, because I'm going to spoil it — involves a man drilling into his skull with a power drill for relief. It's an uncomfortable scene, and what does it mean? What does it tell us about how we live our lives? It may not be meaningless, but it is difficult to find two people who agree on what it means.
Then came Requiem for a Dream, one of very few movies that has caused me to leave a theater mid-showing. The meaning may be more direct — drugs suck! — but it's again, very disturbing.
The Fountain is thought-provoking and disturbing in a different way. Instead of being grotesque, the film challenges beliefs that are so deeply held, we don't realize we hold them. Our cosmology is stood on its end and then tipped over. If you don't find that disturbing, I encourage you to watch it again!
And now, The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke is Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a wrestling superstar 20 years past his prime. Marisa Tomei is the aging stripper Randy wants to love. Later in the film we meet Evan Rachel Wood, playing Randy's estranged daughter. The stage is set, and my chief question was how Aronofsky was going to toy with expectations and disturb me.
It turns out that aging wrestlers push themselves to stay in the game. The most visually disturbing sequence is a series of flashbacks, as we cut back and forth between a much-bloodied Randy and a depiction of how he earned each bit of torn flesh. This same sequence sets up the conflict that carries us through the end of film.
Mickey Rourke may be speaking for himself as much as his character when he describes himself as an "old broken down piece of meat," and he will probably win an Academy Award for this performance — and two decades squandered on a boxing career. He'll deserve it, for many reasons. For the scene in which tears quietly roll down his cheeks at just the right time, for the scene in which we slowly look around a room full of aging and disabled heroes of yesteryear, for the scene in which he realizes he has blown his last chance with a relationship, for all of those and more, Rourke delivers quiet perfection. He not only portrays "The Ram" as I imagine '80s wrestling stars might be, he portrays him so that I see a bit of myself and my lost glory days as well.
In the end, Aronofsky's most daring choice is to set up a final scene like that found in nearly every big Hollywood romance, and then subvert it. In so doing, Aronofsky and Rourke deliver a film that shows us an image of ourselves. While we enjoy watching movies of redemption, and tell ourselves that happiness is found only in the arms of another, our lives tell different stories. Most of us, faced with redemption, find it uncomfortable, or decide that the timing is inconvenient. Most of us turn away, siding with Rourke's character more than Tomei's.
I had heard Bruce Springsteen's song "The Wrestler" before seeing this film, but as it played over the closing credits, I fell in love. "Have you ever seen a one trick pony in the field so happy and free? If you've ever seen a one trick pony then you've seen me." Springsteen's song sums up the film perfectly.
The Wrestler is a disturbing film, but with a purpose. It is alternately heart-warming and brutal, delightful and tragic. It will probably win an Oscar or two, but win or lose, it's worth seeing.