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Movie Review: The Wrestler

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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.

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  • It is an amazing movie, and if Rourke doesn’t win my TV screen may not be safe. One thing though, Phillip…those scenes you reference where Rourke’s character gigs himself with the razor blade and what not are not flashnacks. Thats real time in the context of the story…just thought you oughtta know that.


  • I don’t know exactly what Aronofsky intended, but to me going to the extra mile with the explicit violence was necessary. It’s necessary because we, as the audience, need to see that wrestling is REAL. Not real in an athletic sense, but real in the sense that there is real risk and real pain. If these sorts of things happened offscreen — broken glass, razor blades, staple guns — they would be so unreal to the average audience member that they wouldn’t register. Or they’d just be dismissed as “fake.”
    But I’ve been a wrestling fan on and off for years, and I know how NOT fake it is. I also know how difficult it is to convince people that wrestling is legitimately painful and wraught with injury. People don’t really believe me.
    And since the audience is, we assume, not a bunch of wrestling fans, they will not — in my opinion — accept the reality and brutality of those scenes unless they are forced to really experience them. And knowing just how much the Ram puts himself through for a measly paycheck is a big part of understanding who he is.

  • Ram Jam to the heart

    Thanks for the article. The Wrestler was an outstanding flick.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Yeah, it’s interesting that the whole “wrestling is fake” ideology (which refers to the notion that the match outcomes are predetermined and some of the punches and kicks are pulled) covers the very real brutality and violence of the industry to the point that people don’t believe it actually hurts to fall through a table.

  • Glen, I wasn’t referring to the hidden razor blade, but the “staple gun” bout. There they’re flashbacks, though they don’t flash very far back.

    What I mean is that we see the conversation about the staple gun, and then the two bloody men come into the locker room, and I actually felt a brief flood of relief at being spared the depiction of the match. But then the doctor pulls out the staples, and we rewind just a few minutes to see them go in. Then the doctor stitches up the gash, and we rewind just a few minutes to see the razor wire. Then the doctor pulls out the glass, and we rewind just a few minutes to see it shatter, and so on.

    It’s after that match that Randy doesn’t feel well, if you know what I mean.

  • Aaron, you’re right. Those scenes, as brutal as they are, are necessary. I wish they weren’t, but they are clearly needed. They show just how far Randy is willing to go to stay in the game, as he plays to half-sized crowds at the American Legion hall on Saturday nights.

    I left the movie wondering if people really did that, pay $10 to watch events like that. Google says yes!

    I was intrigued as much by the portraying of that culture, foreign to me, as by Randy himself.

    P.S. Marisa Tomei was 44 as that movie was filmed. 44! I can’t believe it.

  • i loved Pi….wish i’d had a camera to snap a pick of TheWife at the moment of “the drill”…i looked over and she’d covered her whole face with her hands.

    can’t say that i blame her.

    and damnation, that song is just beautiful.

  • Mark, that’s hilarious! I *loved* Pi and The Fountain. Both films haunted me for at least a week. I suspect that if I’d ever finished Requiem for a Dream, it might have done the same, but I was in the wrong mood for that one, and alone, so there was nobody to stop me from leaving.

  • I’m guessing that Mark’s wife and I had nearly identical reactions to the drill scene in Pi.

    I’m looking forward to seeing this one in spite of the fact that I thought The Fountain was just an incredible mess of a silly movie.

  • i’ve also enjoyed showing Pi to my very-used-to-hollywood stepsons. the reaction at the end…”Wha?…That’s it?!!!!” is priceless.

  • I teased my wife that I was going to pick up The Wrestler on Blu-ray, and finally get around to upgrading to HD, just for Marisa Tomei. I *still* can’t believe she was 44.

    Now (unrelated) I want to watch Pi again.

  • Phillip,

    You should definitely see Requiem…there’s really nothing in it as graphic as the drill (or the staple guns and razor blades of The Wrestler), but its pretty powerful stuff. My first reaction after seeing it was that was one fucked up movie. I loved it.

    As for the wrasslin culture of indie cards in VFW halls, it’s very real. One of my good friends is very involved in that scene and has dragged me out to several shows featuring former WWE stars like the Honky Tonk Man. The movie captures the aura of the indie wrestling with startling accuracy. Those guys really do sell autographs for $10. a pop, and quite often end up sitting at an empty table like the guys in the movie did. And they also basically kill themselves in those hardcore matches.

    The Wrestler is a great movie for two reasons. It is a very fascinating and realistic depiction of what really goes on in the pro-wrestling business. And it tells the bigger story of an everyday joe trying to recapture his glory days…something a lot of us can relate to.


  • Thank you for the insightful review. I did not realize that somehow, this movie spoke to me in ways I could not comprehend. Having had most of my glory days past me (artistically speaking) I can really identify with the Mickey Rourke character. And don’t get me started with my identification with Tomei’s character. There’s just so much about this movie that is incredibly true.

  • As for Tomei, if I could find a 44 year old woman who looks like that I could die a happy man.


  • Jen

    Wow, I just saw the movie tonight and it was incredible. If Mickey doesn’t win best actor, that would be insane. Although, I had to cover my eyes through some of the scenes!

    Crazy thing is that there was a couple in the back row that had a baby with them that kept cooing and at one point cried a little! That was more unbelievable than even how good the movie was!