In 2008 Darren Aronofsky helmed the movie that would bring Mickey Rourke’s career back to potential stardom. The Wrestler is a film about a former legend refusing to accept when his time is up and would rather be respected for something he can’t do than be forgotten for something he can. It is a powerful, moving story that simply uses wrestling as a way to highlight the obstacles that approach a man who has lived life from the inside out.
We open watching Randy ‘The Ram’ (Rourke) preparing for his next match up. In the title sequence we see that he was once a top wrestler, one of those ones we all gawp at on the television, now twenty years later he is performing in front of a few hundred in a sports arena as opposed to the millions in front of a TV camera. We witness him and his opponent going through the motions of their fight back stage and then we see the real thing. It may be fake, but boy it is still brutal. The wrestlers cut themselves with razors in order to gain affect and literally talk to each other so they know the next move. Even the poor referee gets in on the action. This is Randy’s world. This is where he is appreciated. We later see him meet the woman he desires in Cassidy (Tomei), a stripper at his local bar, who he sees as a sounding board for all of his wrestling experiences. He used to have it good and he wishes to one day get back there, but his crippled body now sees him struggling to pay rent and having to take on a part time job at a grocery store. His next fight pits him against the ‘crazy one’ who uses staple guns to hurt his opponent. This is a bloody fight and although premeditated they really are hurting each other. So much so that once the fight is over Randy suffers a heart attack. After being told he can never wrestle again Randy cancels his big comeback fight and settles for attempting to woo the affections of Cassidy and renew the friendship between him and his estranged daughter, but he soon realises that without the ring, without the cheering, without the bloodshed he can’t cope with life and the temptation of one day fighting again is just far too much.
The first thing that deserves a mention is the personnel involved. Mickey Rourke is fantastic as ‘The Ram’. He isn’t playing this character, he is this character. It was rumoured that Nicolas Cage was first in line for the role and I am so glad Rourke got it as he is the only one you can really see playing it. The long bleach blonde hair, the fake tan, the steroid induced body all work when it comes to Rourke’s style and look. He is Randy ‘The Ram’. When he isn’t kicking lumps out of fellow wrestlers, Rourke pulls us into his trouble personality with an emotional turn at the midpoint. His world is on the up and he is enjoying his new found life, but when it all turns bad Rourke’s performance makes us feel his pain. Emotion is his pain not the ass kicking in the ring. Tomei is also brilliant and very daring in a role that has her wearing nothing but a tiny g-string. She is ‘The Ram’s’ sounding board although they are very similar, she is the female version of him in a different world but manages to handle it a whole lot better. Evan Rachel Wood is also affective as his daughter but doesn’t have as much screen time as the others.
Aronofsky’s direction is also top notch. This man has always delivered fantastic films (Requiem For A Dream being one of my favourites) and he delivers yet another one here. His decision to not show us Randy from the front until at least ten minutes is a great one. At first we see a fighter but when we finally see him for what he is a lonely old man. The choice to give us many following tracking shots also works. Many of them are following Randy as he walks through corridors, through the shop, through the woods, basically through life, and it makes us experience his world. The best piece is when we hear the crowd as Randy prepares for his first day on the Deli Counter at the grocery store, only for the crowd cheers to disappear when he enters the deli instead of the ring. It’s such a meaningful shot.
The story feels like that of a prisoner who struggles to live outside of a jail cell. This is the sort of man Randy is but his prison is the ring. He doesn’t know how to be or how to act when it isn’t in spandex. This set up and story arc leads us to a powerful ending that really shows how a man can struggle through life when he has tasted something he loves. It is emotional, it is powerful, it will make you understand the world of a onetime hero, Rourke and Aronofsky are to thank for that. Don’t be put off by the fact it is wrestling, there is a much deeper story and his profession is simply the rope he leaps off to find himself in a troubled world. This is a must see.
4 / 5