Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Wrestler

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Ernest Miller
Running Time: 115 min.
Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

Boxing has Rocky and Raging Bull. Basketball has Hoosiers. Football has Rudy. Now wrestling has The Wrestler. Only it comes at the highest price and is the darkest of victories. Now everyone knows. The curtain is pulled all the way back and at times it’s really difficult to watch. I kept trying to convince myself that director Darren Aronofsky was exaggerating for effect. It's a movie. It’s not really that bad. But let’s not fool ourselves. It is. We know because we’ve seen the long list of wrestlers who passed away too soon. The numbers don’t lie and neither does this film, an unflinching, brutalizing look at the life of a past his prime wrestler that’s about as uplifting as a funeral. The film starts dark and then it gets darker until finally it goes so dark it practically plunges itself into the depths of emotional hell.

Supposedly, Aronofsky took a trip up to Stanford, Connecticut to show the film to WWE chairman Vince McMahon. Why he even bothered I have no idea. Those who watch wrestling would seek the movie out anyway, with or without McMahon’s endorsement (more likely without it). Of course he despised the film and now after finally viewing it I find it hard to believe he didn’t hurl himself off the roof of Titan Towers. I’m sure he thinks this “exposes the business.” Damn right it does. The truth hurts.

His denouncement was the first positive sign for me that Aronofsky had probably made a great film. But as someone who's been watching wrestling far longer than I have movies, I couldn’t help but be overcome with wildly mixed feelings. Thrilled as both a fan and filmgoer that the profession of “wrestler” and what they do has finally been treated with the respect and dignity it deserves on screen, but also at the same time thoroughly devastated with the cold reality that unfolds.
Mentioning this film alongside the best sports movies could seem blasphemous to many since wrestling is so often belittled as “fake” by those who don't understand the work involved. But its brilliance is in how it explores the toll that unfair label has taken on those who earn their living doing it, or in the case of this protagonist, struggle to. This isn’t a feel-good movie about redemption, overcoming the odds or even winning the big match. If pushed for comparisons, it comes closest in tone to the gritty Raging Bull, digging so deep and pulling so few punches that the professional wrestling industry as a whole had no choice but to disown it. The accolades and superlatives for that accomplishment belong to Aronofsky, and especially Mickey Rourke, drawing on a well-documented lifetime of pain and suffering to give a performance for the ages.

Rourke is faded 80’s wrestling superstar Randy “The Ram” Robinson, who at the height of his popularity was one of the most recognizable and successful professional wrestlers in the world. Now, twenty years later, his hearing is almost gone, he’s nursing a laundry list of wrestling-related injuries and instead of filling up arenas he lives in a trailer park where he can’t even make the month’s rent. He spends his weekdays working at the supermarket and the weekends wrestling local independent shows in New Jersey. The energy of the crowd (however small it may be) keeps him going but the closest he gets to his glory days is playing himself on an old 8-Bit Nintendo game with the neighborhood kids.

Following a brutal, hardcore match with crazed opponent Necro Butcher (Dylan Summers) Ram collapses in the locker room, suffering a heart attack. He’s told he can never wrestle again but how he’s given the news by the doctor is particularly cold and condescending, as if he views his profession as just a crazy side hobby he can drop at any time rather than what he does for a living. He can’t just "stop." It’s not that simple.

For Ram there is no life outside of wrestling. His only friend is a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) but she has an invisible line she doesn’t want to cross with customers that prevents their relationship from going any further. His estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) hates his guts and at the beginning we’re confused as to exactly why. By the end we’re not. Ram may be a force between the ropes but outside of them he’s essentially a wounded dog, discarded by the business (and it is very much a business) he literally gave his heart to. But he’s still got one match left to go, against his old arc-nemesis The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller”), if he can make it.
Afonofsky, bringing to life the vivid details of Robert Siegel’s script, shows us EVERYTHING. The blading. The steroids. The locker room. The promoters. The planned finishes. Nothing is left out and there are no inconsistencies to be found (and believe me I was looking). I was surprised not only how much wrestling action was in the film, but how good and seamless it looked. And now maybe after seeing close-ups of staples, thumbtacks and barbed wire removed from someone’s flesh, cynics may actually think twice before throwing that ridiculous “fake” label around. Aronofsky has finally done what I've always wanted to my entire life: Shut those people up for good. Pre-determined? Yes. Fake? Try taking a chair shot to the head. Doesn't hurt. I promise.

It’s often said a director or writer did their research before making a film but in the case of Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert Siegel it must have been exhaustive and the results are visible in every frame. There so many little, specific details that are thrown in that can’t be given away at risk of ruining the first-time experience. Besides being thrown right into the ring we’re given unlimited access to the locker room and the camaraderie that exists between the wrestlers. One of my favorite moments is Ram discussing the plans for his match with Butcher, who when you first see him in the locker room reminds you more of a tenured English professor than a hardcore wrestler. Then we see the match and can’t believe it’s even the same guy. After over 20 years watching I thought I had seen everything in pro wrestling but there were some moments here that were really eye opening and educational in shocking ways, like a sleazy promoter paying Randy chump change for a show in a high school gym. The saddest of all is a legends autograph signing where wrestlers are either in wheelchairs, hooked up to I.V’s, or asleep. Only a couple of fans show up.

Here's where I’m obligated to talk about the incredible comeback of Mickey Rourke. Since I'm criminally unfamiliar with much of his early work there’s no baseline for which I can judge his performance here against those, not as if there should be any need to. But I am fully aware of what happened to him and how far he had to climb to get back. And I can tell you, in this film, measured against any criteria, for 115 minutes MICKEY ROURKE IS A PRO WRESTLER. But don’t believe anyone who tells you he’s “playing himself.” If that's true how would you explain how he’s somehow more believable in the role than most of the wrestlers you’d see on television every week? This guy could headline Wrestlemania right now. But it's as Randy where he should earn his Oscar.
Discussing the merits of the film outside of Rourke’s performance is difficult but not because he overshadows it. In fact, just the opposite. He’s in every scene and must carry every moment but what sets his performance apart from Oscar rival Sean Penn’s in Milk is that Rourke makes everything and everyone around him better. While Penn’s work was technically staggering it wasn’t giving like this is. There’s something deeper going on and an emotionally draining ordeal that that could have easily turned into the cinematic equivalent of slitting your wrists is grounded in the warmth and sensitivity Rourke brings to the role. Inside the ring Ram is a maniac but outside of it he’s a gentle soul. He never plays Randy as pitiful cause, instead as a man soldiers on and rolls with the punches despite the obvious emotional pain he feels.

Watching him I got the impression I was witnessing the kind of performance that people will look back on 30 years from now as a standard-bearer in film acting, a Brando-level achievement. Him not winning the Oscar would be a flat-out horror and that’s taking into account that Penn gave arguably the performance of his career. Rourke is that great. The role had originally belonged to Nicolas Cage, who dropped out. To his credit, he knew this was Mickey’s part, or maybe he just wet his pants at the sight of a staple gun. Either way, Cage finally makes a career move we can all support.

As much as it may appear Rourke does it alone, he doesn’t. Evan Rachel Wood has maybe only two or three big scenes but they’re absolutely huge and it’s a powerhouse turn, much more restrained than you might imagine. The dichotomy between Ram and Marisa Tomei’s stripper Cassidy cuts to the very heart of the film. Both dress up (or in her case down) and put on a show. Neither is taken seriously when the show ends, nor do they know who they’re supposed to be when that curtain closes. Two lost souls kicked to the curb in the professions they love when they've reached their expiration date.

Gone are the stylistic and visual flourishes that have become hallmarks of Aronofsky’s films like Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain. The latter was perceived by many to be a failure. Not by me, but if you think he needed a "comeback" film after it this was exactly the kind of one he should have made and an even bigger challenge. Practically stripped bare of everything but Siegel’s script and the actors we find out what’s he really got.
Aided by documentary cinematographer Maryse Alberti the movie has a docu-style feel that's uncomfortable and at times even scary in its immediacy, but never drawing unnecessary attention to its method. We're taking this trip with him as it succeeds even beyond taking us with cruel intimacy into the ring and depicts an even more desolate, depressing world outside of it. A deli scene where Ram finally reaches his breaking point is so frightening I'm swearing off cold cuts for life. The ‘80’s soundtrack could easily double as Guitar Hero’s Greatest Hits, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And if you don’t get chills when Ram comes through the curtain to Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” it’s time to check for a pulse. Had Axl not given them the song for free it would have been worth every penny the studio paid for it.

Because it’s an Aronofsky film we know he won’t supply any easy answers or let us go with a pat ending. One of the few movies I've seen in recent years that ended perfectly. The beauty of the final minutes is how it can be interpreted as either tragic or uplifting. It stays with you. Why should you feel sorry for someone who chose to do this for a living? You shouldn’t, and like the protagonist the film never asks for your sympathy or sentimentalizes the situation. It just asks you to think about it....hard.

Maybe years down the line if wrestlers are ever respected as athletes and entertainers rather than demeaned as “independent contractors” we can look back on Aronofsky’s accomplishment as taking the first steps toward getting there. Wrestling now finally has its film and there’s nothing anyone can do to take it away. Not even McMahon. But what might be the saddest thing about The Wrestler, sadder even than the struggle of the title character, is that the wrestling business is unable to share in the victory.


JD said...

ANother incredible review of what is one of the best character studies in a very long time.
This is pure Aronofsky-- this all about addiction-- in this case pain
and profession.
It's a brilliant film with brilliant performances from its three leads.
Rourke takes his years in wilderness and gives us the single greatest role of his life.
No one else could play this work with any sort of conviction except him.
Awesome review!!
Fuck the Academy for not giving Aronofsky his due!!

Ryan said...

Couldn't agree more for the most part (even though I think you are a little rough on Penn in Milk) but Rourke should get the Oscar hands down for the Wrestler, it's a 4 star movie and pro wrestling finally has a film that isn't Ready to Rumble or No Holds Barred.

jeremythecritic said...

I did think Penn was fantastic in Milk even though I had some issues with the movie. But yeah Rourke deserves to take it.

thebonebreaker said...

Outstanding Review Jeremy ~ I so cannot wait to see this film (even more-so now!)

Ben K said...

An utterly fantastic review of what was at the very least one of the 5 best movies of 2008.It was not just an actor's movie if anyone had bothered to notice. It's a real shame that Aronofsky and Springsteen got snubbed. It could have been worse though. Could you have imagined what a volcanic response that would have erupted if Rourke was nominated for Best Actor?

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