Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

But that’s not, strictly speaking, true. My first written opinion about this film appeared as my 2008 Best Picture of the Year – the inaugural winner of my self-styled awards ceremony, The Glennies. #2 and #3 were Slumdog Millionaire and The Dark Knight, and as if to emphasize the youthful indolence of these picks, I couldn’t be bothered to actually write anything about TDK. This was when my film-blogging days were just getting started – I think this one might’ve actually been a Facebook note. But now that I’ve caught up to my younger self in the decade-on retrospectives, I suppose I’ll have to start being a bit more selective about my 10YA selections, lest I have to rip my younger self a new one for having bad opinions. But my glowing review of Darren Aronofsky‘s The Wrestler is largely one I can still stand behind. As it happens, my future podcast co-host (and then housemate) Daniel and I walked to downtown Seattle to see this film, and he spent the entire walk back educating me on all the real-world wrestling parallels to the events in the film – most of which I’ve since forgotten. But I’ve certainly immersed myself in the medium since, thanks in large part to his continued interest in WWE and invitations to one Pay-Per-View event or another. I’ve also developed a casual fandom for mixed martial arts, and Daniel and I have reviewed such films as Foxcatcher (a dour crime drama about an Olympic wrestling team) and Concussion (about the NFL’s abysmal treatment of CTE – which has also purportedly been an issue in pro wrestling). And on a real-world note, I’ve since learned that the highest bar for tragedy among brain-damaged pro wrestlers was far more violent and disturbing than the sad spectacle of an over-the-hill stuntman whose life and fandom are slowly petering out.

I mention my fandom for MMA because…steroid scandals notwithstanding…the action is real, and it’s a bloodsport. It’s gladiatorial combat, and my personal ethics on watching such things are an ongoing personal project. Every time a fresh spurt of blood hits the Octagon, after I’m done gasping and cheering, I think – Should I really be watching this? And then, I keep watching, because it’s awesome. And because they’re voluntary participants underpaid in a flawed and top-heavy economic system who are fighting by choice and for the twisted amusement of a decadent society that will thoroughly bill them for the healthcare they require afterward and…then I keep watching, because it’s awesome. But there is one type of semi-authentic, semi-scripted prize-fighting that has never made sense to me – a “hardcore match“, in which the wrestlers attack each other (and themselves) with dangerous-looking weapons, inflicting real (minor) injuries.

But why.

Midway through the first act, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) participates in such a match with real-life hardcore wrestler Necro Butcher (Dylan Summers), and for the life of me, I still can’t explain the entertainment value of such a spectacle. I’ll watch a pair of UFC fighters pummel each other until the Octagon looks like a crime scene, but when I see Mickey Rourke and Dylan Summers – two human beings whose character names hardly matter – covered in [possibly real] blood and nicks and scratches and fucking staples, one of which Summers uses to attach a $5 bill to his forehead – I can’t help but wonder what the point of this self-flagellation is. Am I watching a bloodsport right now, or am I watching Jackass? The film seems to share a desire for distance from this spectacle – we first see Randy and his opponent returning to the locker room being attended by EMTs who are stitching up their wounds, removing intramuscular barbed wire chunks, and so forth – and the film cuts back and forth between the injuries and how each of them occurred a few minutes earlier. Aronofsky is an old hand at depicting people debasing themselves, but I must admit, this shtick managed to remain charming to me all the way up until 2017’s mother!, wherein he creates and eviscerates a character played by his then-girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence, for thematic purposes that I found increasingly dubious as the film went on. But I suppose this match serves a purpose, insofar as it presents a representative moment for how the Ram got the way he is. This may be a disturbing event, but it’s not an unusual one for him.

In my 2008 review, I repeated an apocryphal story about Aronofsky telling Rourke that he could resurrect his career, but only if Rourke does exactly as the director says. Then I suggested that The Wrestler – Aronofsky’s most accessible film so far – might be the one to finally launch the director out of film-nerd semi-obscurity. That wasn’t exactly true either (that would be his next film, Black Swan), but it’s fair to say that Rourke, whose comeback was already underway following an outstanding pulp supporting turn in Sin City, got a lot more attention after his Oscar-nominated performance in this film. His Oscar moment is obvious – it’s a failed, two-part rapprochement with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Part 1 is on a pier. In the words of Megan Ganz, “Redemption follows allocution,” and Randy fully confesses the extent to which he’s failed and abandoned her as a father.

“I just want to tell you. I’m the one…who was supposed to take care of everything. I’m the one who was supposed to make everything okay for everybody. But it just didn’t work out like that. And I left. I left you. You never did anything wrong. You know? I used to try to- Huh! Forget about you. I used to try to pretend that…you didn’t exist. But I can’t. You’re my girl. You’re my little- You’re my little girl. And now- I’m an old, broken-down piece of meat. And I’m alone. And I deserve to be all alone. I just don’t want you to hate me. Okay?”

If I’ve picked up on anything about this scene in the past decade (besides lessons in what not to do as a father), it’s that it only works so well because it’s sincere in the moment, but turns out to be a lie. The film’s most heartbreaking and redemptive moment is just another Randy “The Ram” Robinson hype speech, trying to be the Face for an abandoned adult child for whom he’s only ever been the Heel. And he’s lying as much to himself as he is to her. In a later scene, after biffing the simple task of “meeting his daughter for dinner at a predetermined time and place” (in favor of doing lines of coke and an eager fan-girl in a bar bathroom, which cannot be a good idea for a man who’s just had a heart attack), he desperately strokes Stephanie’s hair and face as she initially screams that she hates him, and then finally, coldly tells him the truth.

“You know what? I don’t care. I don’t hate you. I don’t love you. I don’t even like you. And I was stupid to think that you could change…There is no more fixing this. It’s broke. Permanently. And I’m okay with that. It’s better. I don’t ever want to see you again. Look at me- I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to hear you. I am done. Do you understand? Done. Get out.”

There’s an old screenwriting tip that you should always begin your stories on the most interesting day of the characters’ life. But I think there’s something equally appealing about picking a truthfully representative day of the character’s life. What works so well about Wood and Rourke’s performances here is that while it’s unclear if this is the first time that father and daughter have tried to repair their relationship, it feels like it probably is not. With each biting word and emotional beat splayed across their faces, we see the complete history of this family, and we know the extent to which they’re following a script that they’ve played out already (see also: Wood’s various performances in Westworld). This isn’t just what Robin did today. This is what Randy does. It’s who he is. A fuck-up.

I haven’t mentioned Pam (stage name: Cassidy) (Marisa Tomei) yet, because I don’t think her storyline has changed for me much in the past decade. The Ram is performing violence, Cassidy – a stripper – is performing sexuality, each of them – however unfairly – is nearing the end of their ability to do so. And the pair of them are performing friendship and perhaps romance with each other, never quite sure whether they’re crossing any arbitrary personal or professional boundaries. This still works just fine (and Tomei’s performance is still marvelous), but what you see is what you get. Same goes for all of the stuff at the grocery store. It’s bleak, even funny at times, but straight-forward. The Ram is broke and working a normal job, and his boss is a bit of a dick, and that’s about it.

My main takeaway from this film is that Robin Ramzinski needs to stop. After a ridiculously thorough drug transaction from actor and real-life convicted drug-dealer Scott Siegel, he suffers a myocardial infarction and bypass surgery, and is warned by his doctor that he needs to eliminate all of his vices – drugs, wrestling, anything that’ll be a strain on his heart. In the very next scene, we see him collapse while going for an easy jog in the woods. He’s an old broken-down piece of meat. And in his final speech, the Ram declares, “The only ones who are gonna tell me when I’m through doing my thing, is you people right here.” And then he slams and leaps for our amusement, from the top of the ring into oblivion as the credits roll. And if the film leaves you with anything, it’s a fading, cacophonous scream from the audience. The Ram is through. His weakness, and his tragedy, is that he couldn’t accept it 30 seconds earlier.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Advertisements

“mother!” (dir. Darren Aronofsky) – Hell is other people and also you

After watching Darren Aronofsky‘s complete filmography, if there was any remaining doubt in my mind that he takes a perverse satisfaction in mentally torturing his characters, it’s gone now. Characters aren’t real. They can’t feel anything except what an author feels on their behalf, so to watch their ordeal rendered through the visual, auditory, and acting talents of others is ideally an insider’s look at what the author was experiencing when they wrote it. And if all of these disparate players do that original vision justice, perhaps the audience will understand what it’s like to be that grand auteur – and in so doing, better understand themselves. All of that presumes that art is both forthcoming and self-aware, and this is not always the case. Sometimes, art says as much and more about the time and society in which it is created than about the author’s own proclivities (this is how we come to enjoy light propaganda like American Sniper). Or perhaps the author doesn’t know themselves as well as they think – and their creation is a lens through which to glimpse the truth of that creator, whether or not he understands it himself. I’ll never really know, but I’ve seen enough of Aronofsky’s work to believe I have the measure of the man. Darren Aronofsky is the destroyer of worlds. But with mother!, he is venturing firmly into Lars von Trier territory, destroying a world that I’m not certain was worth creating in the first place.

His latest victim is Grace, a woman played by his real-life romantic partner, Jennifer Lawrence, who is married to a much older, critically acclaimed poet, Eli (Javier Bardem). The couple lives in Eli’s childhood home, which was previously gutted by fire, and which Grace has been expertly renovating ever since the couple got together, while Eli struggles to overcome his writer’s block and write more poetry. His previous work is acclaimed enough to have granted them a comfortable life, but he has long been unable to produce anything new – whether at the writing desk or in the bedroom. Their house is in the middle of an oddly pixelated field and woods, seemingly without a road nearby, and we never see Grace venture past the front porch. The couple’s lackadaisical home life is upended by the arrival of a mysterious unnamed couple, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. Harris initially arrives with a story that he had mistaken the house for a B&B, and Eli generously offers to let him stay the night. Even as this initial pretext falls away, this will be the first of many times that Eli displays inordinate generosity toward strangers at his wife’s expense (and without even discussing the matter), and it’s honestly one of the most difficult aspects of this film to explain to people who haven’t seen it. Couples routinely disagree, and sometimes make commitments that the other must live up to even if they’d prefer not to. It can be a source of tension, and hopefully the couple works it out. That’s the mundane stuff of family dramedy. This wasn’t that. This was a shared, grandiose delusion of every character in this film besides Grace that everything about this situation is just fine, even as it quickly and destructively escalates. More people arrive, more damage is done, more items are shared, and Grace is persistently the only one reacting like a human being, pushing back, asking questions, and acting genuinely baffled that people are treating her so poorly. She’s not Marge Simpson, dealing with a comedic buffoon. She’s Skyler White, dealing with a sociopath. Her reaction is correct, and everyone else’s is wrong.

After watching how thoroughly Lawrence’s character was abused in Passengers, a film which seemed completely unaware of the reality it was creating and which strove to be a conventional romance, I was nervous going into this one. But Aronofsky’s hand is most deft here when it comes to his treatment of Grace as a character, and Lawrence’s performance is about the only thing that makes the film bearable. Almost without exception, every frame centers on Grace, and the camera floats within just a few feet of Lawrence. This is a mix of over-the-shoulder and in-her-face, creating a cinematic POV that invites the audience to become complicit in its invasiveness. As the viewer, you’re standing too close, facing the wrong way in a stuffy elevator, and the movie is happy to let you linger there. And Lawrence nails this character, even as I struggled with how much to sympathize with Grace as the film goes on. She seizes whatever petty control that she can as her husband laughs and smiles and hikes and drinks and chats with the new arrivals. She grits her teeth and tries her best to ignore Pfeiffer’s character getting day-drunk, interrupting her work, and asking invasive, leading questions about her sex life and plans to have children. She stares back at each fresh outrage, tilts her head, and politely pushes back – even as Lawrence’s beleaguered eyes and increasingly steely voice demand to know why any of this is happening. And the script hands Grace a few fleeting moments of agency in the first act. Harris’ character continuously tries to smoke in the house despite Grace’s admonitions, and she seizes an opportunity as Harris vomits in the bathroom from too much whiskey, shoving his Zippo lighter off the back of a dresser where it won’t be found. After she resolves to throw the couple out once and for all (and Eli is uncharacteristically occupied for a moment), she hurtles their wet laundry – abandoned in the washer for her to finish – onto the floor. These moments sound petty as I summarize them, and this is one of the other things that is hard to explain about this film. Every scene seeks to make Grace bleed from a thousand cuts while whistling a happy tune and saying everything is alright. These minuscule victories are some of the only cathartic moments that the film has to offer, offering meager hints of the inevitable scream that must issue from her mouth before the film is over, if we’re ever to feel anything besides pity for this wretched creature: None of this is okay, and all of these assholes need to leave, now.

Pfeiffer is positively wicked in these scenes, nailing the perfect balance of passive aggression and personal invasion. She’s here to stay at your house for precisely as long as she’d like, and she’d really appreciate it if you’d stop being such an entitled bitch about it, thank you very much. I’m borrowing a bit of the film’s language here, but honestly, it was hard not to think of Lawrence’s own experiences with the public’s invasiveness as I watched what happened to her character (particularly in the third act). And this is where mother! left me torn as to whether it was all worth it, and what it was all for. The film fully embraces its dreamlike storytelling – time lurches forward imprecisely, scenes mash into each other, and the world becomes a living nightmare as Eli gleefully deals with the consequences of his renewed fame and public appreciation. Kristen Wiig briefly appears as Eli’s publisher, in possibly the most disturbing work she has ever done. And as the whole repulsive spectacle unfolded, I lost the thread of precisely what this film was trying to say about the cost of creativity.

It seemed to be dancing on the cusp of three ideas:

  1. Creators must constantly share of themselves to the adoring masses, and in so doing, lose themselves.
  2. The public should probably stop acting like a pack of entitled cannibals and make something of their own.
  3. Creators have a destructive effect on their loved ones, with the fictional worlds that they create inevitably coming from the sublimation, neglect, and destruction of their real lives.

These ideas are all over the place, and for much of the film’s third-act Saturnalia, I found myself wondering whether this was an exercise in self-awareness or egotism on Aronofsky’s part. I haven’t said much about Bardem’s performance here, and that’s for two reasons. First is that Bardem succeeded in making Eli both delightful and repulsive to me – a figure who can conjure up the finest words to promote, justify, and reinforce the most despicable acts that the world has to offer. Second is that I don’t really know how much of an avatar Eli is meant to be for Aronofsky himself. Much of the film’s conflict is over whether or not this couple really cares about each other, as Eli’s persistent neglect of Grace in favor of a gang of strangers is repeatedly justified on the grounds that the experience might help him create more art. Talking with these people, Eli argues, is better than talking to her, because at least they’ve got something novel to say. This is Grace’s lot in this film – not merely the put-upon wife who grapples with her husband’s ingratitude and straying affections, but also a flagging muse, cast against her will as a man’s source of creative light, useless and thrown away as soon as that light has faded. And it doesn’t fade with a wimper. I found myself simultaneously reveling in the film’s excesses and wanting to warn others not to expose themselves to it for the sake of their sanity. This isn’t the best rumination on creativity I’ve seen – not even the best this year. And even while Aronofsky is at the top of his technical craft, I still can’t answer definitively whether his latest exercise in creating, enslaving, and agonizing an innocent woman was really worth it.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10