If nothing else, The Wrestler made me want to grow my hair out, strap on some tight-ass black leather pants, and blast some serious eighties hair metal. When the title character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, declares, “Fuckin’ eighties man. Best shit ever,” I felt myself nodding in approval even though I barely remember the decade seeing as I was nine when it’s awesomeness came to a close. But all throughout high school, thanks to Jeff “The Body” Phillips, eighties music was the shit. Poison, Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Cinderella, Def Leopard, LA Guns—we tried valiantly to revive the eighties during the late nineties on the suburban South Shore of Massachusetts, and we did a pretty decent job. We convinced our graduating class that our senior prom song should be “The Search is Over” by Survivor, and we performed as Poison along with two other friends during our school’s mock male beauty pageant. Jeff and I would cruise in his tomato red Honda CRX with the sunroof open, eighties music shredding it up. Now, thanks to The Wrestler, eighties music receives two hours of glorious revival.
That said, The Wrestler is a small picture about small people living in a small world who still cling to big dreams. Randy, played by Mickey Rourke in one of those performances fully deserving of its hyperbole, is a relic of the 80s, a professional wrestler who once wrestled in Madison Square Garden, but at the start of the film is relegated to a school’s gymnasium. Washed-up, beat-up, and bulked up with all sorts of roids, Randy is a pathetic creature who probably banged fine-ass bitches in his hey-day, but now needs to get off on the occasional curiosity fuck, like a woman who knows of him because her brother followed Randy’s career. Most of the film consists of director Darren Aronofsky following Randy around his depressed Jersey milieu, whether it’s the local strip joint, supermarket, trailer parks, or American legion halls where he still wrestles, clinging with every fiber in his body to the fading remnants of his past. This film is a far cry aesthetically from Aronofsky’s previous fever dream films, which were pitched at maximum volume, but Aronofsky achieves an admirable documentary verisimilitude that is well suited for this tale.
A lot of people have commented on how it’s impossible to separate the main character’s career trajectory with that of the actor playing the part, and it’s easy to see why. Rourke was a ridiculously prodigious acting talent who exploded in the eighties in films such as Body Heat, Diner, Angel Heart, Barfly. Dude was the shit. Then the nineties happened and he became a punchline. I believe it cannot be denied that Rourke’s own personal story influenced his take on this character, but I don’t want this review to turn into US Weekly. The performance speaks for itself, specifically the image of Rourke—his hearing aid, his reading glasses, his taped together vest and coat, his pitted, mashed-in face. This is a role that demands presence and Rourke has it. He doesn’t need Shakespearean dialogue to let us in on his pain, his regret, his desire to be loved. You sense it in his voice, but you bear witness to it in his actions, most vividly in the wrestling ring scenes. If Rourke equals Randy, then film equals professional wrestling: a scripted artifice that sustains a grasp on reality because of participatory individuals. No matter how fantastic or unbelievable a scenario may seem in either the film or the wrestling universe, the dependence on accepting these temporary illusions establishes an alternate reality (even if only for a couple of hours). And the characters who create these illusionary realities (film directors/actors/writers/wrestlers) are flesh and blood, so when they willingly expose themselves to us, the audience, a tacit collaboration results and fuses us together to create a symbiotic union between real and fake.
I’m happy Aronofsky, Rourke, Marissa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Woods keep the film rooted; they don’t overplay the story’s modest delights, and the actors don’t over-emote and cry out for Oscar attention (Unlike the actors in Doubt). Everything retains its simplicity, which is how it should be. The film ends on a perfect grace note—Randy/Rourke gives a speech thanking his fans for all of their support before he leaps down from the top ropes and vanishes from the frame, his disappearance the final magic trick that links the character/actor to his audience. Out of sight, never out of mind, Rourke and Aronofsky do justice to the irrefutable fact that everybody wants to have an audience, and everybody needs to be acknowledged for their being. Because even when we disappear, we’re never truly gone.
PS – Bruce Springsteen was robbed. His song, played over the closing credits, complements the film’s tale perfectly.