Film review by: Witney Seibold
“The Wrestler” is one of the best, if not the best film, of 2008. I think it will resonate strongest with people who were children in the 1980s during the first WWF boom, but it’s true and honest enough to appeal to anyone. It is a tale of a broken man finding what is truly important to him. It is about the man’s need to clumsily reach through his cloud of loneliness to the only other souls in his life. It is about a man trying to become the father he was never much interested in being. It is about fiding the little tiny scraps of professional and personal glory in your rapidly fading fame and withering body.
It is about how hard wrestlers work. It is a near-documentary about life on and off of the mat. People have been angrily shouting for years that pro-wrestling is not a legitimate sport because the outcomes are staged and the injuries are faked. “The Wrestler” points out that while indeed the actions and outcomes of the matches are all determined beforehand, none of the injuries can be faked. When you see a guy bleeding on the mat, he is bleeding for real. When he is hit with a folding chair, he is really being hit. When he is poking staples into his body, he is really being stapled. And yes, they all take steroids. There are scenes in “The Wrestler” in which the muscle men all openly and casually trade the drugs they dump wholesale into their bodies.
What’s more, Mickey Rourke, in the lead role of Randy “The Ram” Robinson is not merely great, he is a revelation. He manages to express in his distended face and leathery wrestlers’ hide just how pained he is, and just what every struggle means to him. He lives in a trailer, works at a grocery store, and lives for the weekends when he gets to enter the ring again and be “The Ram.” His venues have diminished from his glory days. Once able to pack stadiums, he now only draws crowds of about 100 to tiny gyms in his native New Jersey. It may seem sad, but Randy comes alive in the ring; it is the one thing in his life he is good at. And he has his fake tan, frosted hair, and neon pants down to a science.
I recently saw “9 ½ Weeks” for the first time, and the Mickey Rourke in that film is a different person. Rourke famously gave up acting to take up boxing in the mid-1990s, and the result can be seen in his face and body. He also has clearly been juicing, and he has the distended facial features of someone who has extensively used steroids. Randy “the Ram” is a perfect role for him, as it taps directly into what Raourke has largely been through.
Marisa Tomei plays a stripper named Cassidy. Tomei recently turned 44, and is twice as hot as she was at 22. And while looking at her nude body is a pleasure, we can see in Cassidy’s face and demeanor that she feels she’s past her prime. Cassidy is regularly visited by Randy for lapdances, and Randy has been not-so-secretly wanting this to become something more. They share a kinship. They both know that they must give up their professions soon, and their bodies won’t allow too much more.
Randy suffers a heart attack. He is forbidden from wrestling ever again. He gives one last effort of reconnect with his estranged lesbian daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who has long since tried to cut all ties. “I just don’t want you to hate me,” Randy pleas.
When I was 10 years old, I followed the WWF. I once got to see a live performance of Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Andre the Giant. I cheered a lot. I gathered at friends houses to see broadcasts of Wrestlemania. I even watched “Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” once or twice. “Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling,” by the way, is in the running for one of the single worst cartoon shows ever produced.
I knew the fantasy. The tough-guy fantasy. The glory of standing in a ring and living the persona. All us kids picked up on it and believed it. The wrestlers were indeed performers, but they didn’t necessarily step entirely out of character when they left the ring; they lived the attitude we all experienced vicariously. “The Wrestler” brings us back to that. Now grown up, tired, worn out, beaten up, we return to our inner heroes, heroes we have never necessarily given up on. This is not just a wave of nostalgia. This is an important treatise on a generation’s myths.
Darren Aronofsky directed this film, which is all the more astonishing. Aronofsky has directed “π,” “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain,” each of which was an overly-stylized phantasmagoria dealing with obsession and addiction. He has now shown us that he is capable of scaling back and giving us something truly raw and powerful.