No disrespect to Disney’s stirring new documentary, Earth, but it just isn’t that hard to portray a touching and heart-wrenching struggle for survival when your stars are sleek Arctic lynxes, African elephants, and magnificent humpback whales battling the elements in breathtaking natural settings. But when your star is the mangy Mickey Rourke, and the backdrop is a malodorous gymnasium in Rahway, New Jersey, wringing real pathos from a bloody battle against the forces of time and nature is a hell of a lot more challenging.
All the more reason to respect the job that director Darren Arnofsky, writer Robert Siegel, and cinematographer Maryse Alberti have done with The Wrestler in taking a fake sport as their subject and turning it into a real, if small-scale, cinematic triumph.
The Wrestler is most likely to find its audience among those people who don’t particularly care for the Kabuki set-pieces and soap opera plots of real professional wrestling. The film is set in the minor leagues of the pro wrestling business, for one thing, and, for another, it makes no particular attempt to meet the average WWE fan halfway by reveling in the drama and the absurdity of the sport.
But neither does The Wrestler use that absurdity to mock the sport, its participants, or its adherents. Instead, the story focuses on how Rourke’s character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a battered former superstar and self-described “old broken down piece of meat”, flails against loneliness, chronic pain, and the ripple effects of his own terrible life choices.
The movie follows The Ram (whose real first name is, of all things, Robin) as he bounces back and forth from pathetically under-attended autograph sessions to small-town wrestling exhibitions to strip clubs to the trailer where he lives to bleak New Jersey street corners to the supermarket deli where he works to put food and steroids on the table.
At every point, the movie’s attention to detail is admirable; note, for example, the way in which, after an especially brutal match, Robinson gingerly fist bumps someone because his arm is so sore. And a scene in which Robinson plays an ancient video game featuring himself as his younger, and heavily pixellated, incarnation with a trailer-park kid who is alternately respectful and bored is a beautiful bit of observation.
Rourke’s female counterpart in this movie is a stripper played by Marisa Tomei who, just like Rourke, must face the reality that a job that depends on a firm and fit body is not the kind that one can ride comfortably until retirement. What does a 40-something pole spinner and even older professional wrestler do when they can’t perform a scissors lock or lap dance any more, at least not without the audience snickering?
The movie has no answers, because there are none. It’s just tough.
For Robinson, it’s especially tough. His heart is failing, and his daughter (a superb Evan Rachel Wood, in a wonderfully natural performance) is understandably embittered by his neglect of her when she was growing up and he was on the road, building his brand as “The Ram”. Now that his fan base has faded away, he suddenly needs her love, but she’s moved on.
For “The Ram”, there is no moving on. When your only other choice is dishing out macaroni salad in a supermarket deli, getting raked over the back with barbed wire and nailed with a staple gun – two baroque punishments inflicted on Robinson in the ring – is a perfectly acceptable career choice.
Mickey Rourke, who has the face of a diseased lion and the body of a beat-to-hell Adonis, is perhaps the only well-known Hollywood actor who could possibly have played this role – and that’s not even considering the real-life parallels between Robinson’s story and Rourke’s own frequent trips to the canvas as an actor and unsuccessful boxer.
Marisa Tomei is fine as the stripper, “Cassidy”, with whom Robinson has a brief and conflicted flirtation. In the context of this movie and role, it is not out of bounds to note that she has a beautiful body and – though she is among the prettiest actresses Hollywood has ever produced – the ability to transform her face into a mask of weariness and permanently injured empathy.
Comparing this film to a nature documentary where grunting beasts rut, fight, and struggle to feed themselves and their families isn’t the least bit fair, of course. Though they’re portrayed here as doing all of those things, Robinson and the other (real-life) professional wrestlers seen in this film are also tremendous athletes and canny entertainers, and are in touch with an elemental reality that all of us face, though rarely in such a visceral manner.
Indeed, there are probably few film goers (over the age of 30, at least) who will not see in The Wrestler some parallels between Robinson’s and Cassidy’s struggles and their own, in whatever vocation they’ve chosen to give their lives over to.
America is the land of freedom and endless opportunity and all that, but Americans still have to eventually choose their path. But no matter where we live, we’ve been given only one life and only one body with which to live it. No matter how much we might want to be something or someone else, we have no alternative but to peruse our chosen profession even as the injuries — physical or emotional or spiritual – continue to mount. And so we do whatever we can to make it in this world with our dignity or our bodies – though rarely both – intact.
It’s an obvious truth, but one we spend much of our days successfully avoiding, and The Wrestler does a better job than almost any movie one could name in placing it squarely in front of us. If The Wrestler has a fault, in fact, it’s that it is almost too insistent and too focused on its theme; the film sometimes feels cramped and claustrophobic as a result.
The Wrestler DVD doesn’t contain a lot of extras (or, as a friend of mine likes to call them, “bullshit extras”) but the one it does have is excellent – a “making of” documentary that, unlike many such documentaries, communicates the sincerity with which Arnofsky and his fellow professionals went about capturing the movie’s unusual milieu. Arnofsky comes across as a regular and down-to-earth person in the documentary, which is perhaps a bit surprising to viewers who “know” him only through his previous and rather phantasmagoric movies, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain. Even more surprising, at least to me, are the fine contributions to the musical score by, of all musicians, Slash.