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

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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

2008 Glennies, Part 6: Best Picture (Part 2 of 2)

Top 10 Films of the Year (cont.):

#5: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

I could not have expected less from this movie. I was in Moscow, desperate for American cinema, and there were literally two films playing in English in the entire city… Iron Man, which I’d already seen twice, and this film. The premise looked laughable and sitcom-ish – a man goes on vacation after his girlfriend dumps him…and lo and behold, the girlfriend is staying in the same hotel! With a new guy already! Hijinks will ensue!

But this film shocked me with its brilliance. It is my second-favorite romance of all time, coming in just behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and it was also one of the best comedies I saw this year. The film brilliantly conveys the post-breakup condition (particularly from the guy’s perspective), as well as every potentially awkward situation you can have with a girl… Something I could certainly identify with. Jason Segel (who also wrote the film) plays the same character he’s been playing since “Freaks and Geeks”, and makes me wonder just how well-meaning and overbearing he is in real life… He is entertaining, to be sure, but Mila Kunis’ performance (which I rave about in “Part 2: Best Supporting Actresses”) is just incredible, and is truly what elevates this film from a mere raunchy comedy.

#4: Man on Wire

This documentary tells the story of Phillippe Petit, the man who successfully (and completely illegally) strung a wire between the twin World Trade Center towers, shortly after they were built, and spent almost an hour walking on it. The film uses a combination of interviews, footage, photographs, and gripping reenactments to tell the tale. It strikes a tone very much like a heist film, as Petit forms his team and plan, and has to figure out some way to get into both towers, get hundreds of pounds of cable and equipment to the top without provoking suspicion, somehow fire the cable from one tower to the other, and spend several hours rigging it – all without getting caught before getting onto the wire, and possibly plunging to his death.

It is a breathtaking and joyous story, and Petit himself is an absolute pleasure to watch as he recounts the tale. …and if it makes a difference to you, it’s the best-reviewed film of all time on Rotten Tomatoes.

#3: The Dark Knight

You either already know why, or you probably don’t care.
See this film. If you already have, see it again.

#2: Slumdog Millionaire

It’s a very strange premise… Jamal Malik, an 18-year-old kid from the slums of Mumbai competes on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”, and is suspected of cheating for making it to the 10 million rupee question. As he tells his life story to the police detective interrogating him, he explains (in perfect sequential order) how the events of his life came to give him each of the answers to the questions. And as this story is told, we hear about Latika, his long separated childhood sweetheart. The rest plays out as you might expect. Will he and Latika be reunited by his appearance before a TV audience of millions? Of course. It is written. It is destiny. This is a beautiful, uplifting fairy tale that is all about the journey, rather than the destination.

And since it’s done in the Bollywood style… You just know the destination will include a rousing dance number. This film is City of God by way of Mumbai, with just a hint of Disney princess. It is a beautiful, well-acted, and unforgettable film.

#1: The Wrestler

Everything I had to say about Mickey Rourke (“Part 4: Best Actor”) and Marisa Tomei (“Part 2: Best Supporting Actress”) could go into explaining this film’s brilliance. Darren Aronofsky, director of such disturbing or perplexing films as Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, allegedly approached Mickey Rourke and told him, “I can resurrect your career, but you have to do exactly as I say.”

Rourke allegedly said that on any other day, he might’ve punched Aronofsky out on the spot, but he was feeling particularly receptive. It is a good thing for this film that he was, because I don’t know who else could possibly have played this role convincingly.

And yet, this film may be what really launches Aronofsky’s career from semi-obscurity. This is easily the most accessible of his films. Every grainy, documentary-style frame of this film feels real, as we see Randy “The Ram” Robinson (real name: Robin Ramzinski) try to sort out the shambles of his life, including his fading pro wrestling career, his friendship with the stripper Cassidy (Tomei), and the relationship with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). Every last moment of his performance is genuine and heartbreaking. The film ends as you might expect, and yet the final frame is ambiguous as to the Ram’s fate. Does he die, in the pursuit of what he loves, or does he live, to continue his perpetually tenuous grasp on the important things in his life?

Regardless of the outcome, the Ram is a tragic character, flagellating himself for his own sadism and our entertainment. And Rourke pulls it off in a huge way.

This is a film that will stay with you. It is a sad film that feels joyous as you watch it.

Honorable Mentions:

Dear Zachary
Burn After Reading
Iron Man
Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
Hamlet 2
Tropic Thunder