The most popular wrestlers today aren’t simply individuals; they are part of larger commodity packages.
— Nicholas Sammond, “Introduction: A Brief and Unnecessary Defense of Professional Wrestling” (Steel Chair to the Head 2005)
Your first glimpses of Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) are looking back. Specifically, they are tacked to a wall — newspaper clippings and headlines, photos and flyers, remnants of a professional wrestling career, faded. As the camera pans over this wall at the beginning of The Wrestler, the soundtrack offers up another sort of reminder, a crowd’s cheers and boos, rants and hype, Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head.” The date, crackles an announcer at Madison Square Garden, is 1989. Glory days.
Following a briefly black screen, it’s “20 years later,” and Randy’s slumped in a chair in a school room, coughing as if to die, surrounded by used toys and crayon drawings. The camera approaches slowly and low, as if expecting trouble. Instead, a kid in jeans enters the frame, crumpled bills in hand. Sorry, man, he apologizes, “I thought the gate would be bigger.” Randy grunts and gathers himself, donning his raggedy black parka and making his way through a gymnasium where workers are taking down the ring. The camera stays close, watching from over Randy’s shoulder as he nods to autograph seekers and drives his beater car home — trailer now padlocked because he hasn’t made rent. Rankled that he landlord won’t answer his thuds on the door, Randy settles in for the night’s long haul, drinking himself to sleep amid the clutter in the back of his car.
Just four minutes into The Wrestler, it looks like Randy has good reason to cling to his past, as his present is so exceedingly unpleasant. Indeed, his time is wearing down, along with his body — which he keeps toned (by free weights and steroids), tanned (by booth), and topped by a signature blond mane (by bottle). It’s not that he’s unaware of this passage, but as indicated by his constant hustle, Randy is loath to let go of a possible comeback. He’s encouraged by his friends in the business, low-rent as they are, to look ahead, in particular toward a rematch between Randy the Ram and the Ayatollah (a.k.a. Bob, played by Ernest Miller), revisiting not only their own memories, but also that historical moment when the U.S. battled scary clerics with fierce and righteous impunity.
Though it feels almost unbearably intimate at times, The Wrestler manages such grand allusions adroitly, its tight frames and handheld herky-jerkiness emblematic of one life collapsing in on itself, but also of broadly masculine confidence, the kind that propelled U.S. cowboyism across the globe. Randy’s current day job resonates as well, stacking shelves at a suburban New Jersey warehouse store. Enduring weekly disdain from his nerdish boss, Randy’s vaguely replenished on the weekends by his stints in the ring — even more so by the locker room camaraderie, the guys eager to repeat what he’s done, the championships, the stunts, the bruises and the bloody shows.
It’s this investment in storytelling that the film finds most fascinating. Professional wrestling is at once work, sport, and entertainment, fake and real, a show with consequences, in which each player’s part moves the good-and-evil plot. This story might be overarching (across matches and locations and even years). It might be self-contained, with a particular contest starting and ending with roles fixed and finished. In all cases, the wrestler’s body is the site of moral and political drama, the locus of fan love or hate, the, a screen for the projection of (mostly working class, mostly white, and often male) desires. Randy yearns for that connection with his audience, the roar he felt he earned — whether as villain or hero. He calls the fans his “family,” and The Wrestler doesn’t judge him for it, but instead reveals how this abstract and also deeply personal relationship sustains him. When he practices his signature move, a leap from the corner post onto an opponent’s laid-out form, Randy soars, briefly, before he crashes, audience cheers and whistles echoing in his head.
The Wrestler expands insights into this complex relationship in Randy’s efforts to alter his self-image. After he suffers a heart attack and is instructed to give up the ring, Randy takes o more hours at the store (with plastic nametag — revealing his embarrassing real name, Robin — and hairnet, he works the butcher’s counter, a sublime assignment that has him working with bloody meat even as he understands himself as “an old, broken-down piece of meat”). He also seeks out his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he abandoned, along with her mother, years ago. While she serves primarily as a melodramatic plot point (desperate to believe he’ll commit time to her, deadly afraid that he will betray her again), the daughter also provides Randy with reason to tell his story as he sees it (apologizing, he says he “deserves to be alone,” tearfully begging for her sympathy and even demonstrating, for a minute, that he capable of being a decent guy).
Though he seeks Stephanie’s forgiveness (and utterly unable to deserve it), he is equally moved by the chance at a romance with a local pole dancer, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). Her intrigue with him has to do with her own fear of losing time, and the parallels between their professions are hard to miss. Each depends on maintaining a particular body to work (that is, to earn money and confirm an identity). Exposing and giving up their bodies nightly, they are subjected to cruelty and contempt, and in this shared experience, they understand one another. They as they grasp that timing is crucial in the work of wrestling and dancing, both Randy and Cassidy struggle to find their rhythms with each other.