Film review

The Wrestler

The Wrestler

DIRECTED BY Darren Aronofsky
STARRING Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

SYNOPSIS

Randy The Ram is a professional wrestler way past his prime, who ekes out a living on the D-list circuit. When he is offered a chance to recapture his former glory, it looks like his life might take a turn for the better. But events conspire against him. And Randy has to make a decision that will have far-reaching consequences for everyone around him.

***

You could be forgiven for wondering exactly how much of The Wrestler is an extended therapy session for Mickey Rourke. After all, watching Rourke’s over-the-hill wrestler attempting one last shot at glory, it’s difficult to distinguish quite where Rourke’s own life story ends and that of his fictional counterpart, Randy The Ram, begins.

Speaking to UNCUT in 2003, for instance, Rourke claimed “I lost everything – my credibility, my marriage, my money, my soul. This time, I can’t afford to fuck up. Because if I do, it’s the end.” It’s the kind of speech Rourke virtually delivers word for word on several occasions in The Wrestler, and you might reasonably assume he’s channelling memories of his own career after falling from the Hollywood A list. Over the opening credits, director Aronofsky runs a montage of Randy in all his pomp, culminating in a bout at New York’s Madison Square Garden, in front of an audience of 25,000. The year is 1985, the same year Rourke starred in The Year Of The Dragon, with 9 ½ Weeks close behind. It seems no accident that both actor and character are firmly located at their peak at the same time.

When we meet Randy properly for the first time, 20 years later, he’s living in a New Jersey trailer park; the locks have been changed because he’s behind with the rent. He sleeps in his car, washing down pills with beer. He’s apparently only good for playing at scaring the local kids, who treat him like a battered fairytale ogre. He has a hearing aid and appalling blond locks that make him look like a cheap Axl Rose impersonator. Rourke tells similarly grim stories of his own life after his own decline – including, in the interview over the page, working security for gamblers, brothels and transvestite bars – so you could assume this is, perhaps, not too much of a stretch for his acting muscles. Certainly, Rourke looks (indeed, >ii<) the part. His face is battered and his body scarred; the film is dominated by his hoarse, laboured mouth breathing. Randy, we learn, now does the pro-am circuit, facing off in high-school gyms against similarly past-it dudes with names like Lex Lethal and Tommy Rotten. He appears to spend much of his spare time either trying to get casual work stacking shelves in a local supermarket or hanging out in the local titty bar. He’s got a thing for Cassidy (Tomei), an ageing stripper who’s beginning to lose her touch with the customers. Cassidy, you sense, could be the chink of light Randy clearly needs. If anything, this first act of The Wrestler is a study of how far a man can tumble and still retain some semblance of his dignity.

But it’s a fine line. Wrestling is hardly the most noble of sports, as anyone with the vaguest memories of Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy on Grandstand in the Seventies, or minimal knowledge of the WWF’s cartoon-like cast of characters might attest. Just prior to the film’s first bout in a nondescript school hall, we find Randy backstage working out what dives to take with his opponent. He hides razor blades in his bandages so when he goes down, he can cut himself to make it look like he’s been badly hurt. Later, Randy hooks up with some old school wrestlers for a signing session. It amounts to little more than a bunch of middle aged men, muscles turning to flab, sitting behind desks with their legs propped up on stools to ease damaged limbs (or, in one case, to aid the flow to his catheter) with piles of cheap-looking DVDs laid out in front of them, waiting for someone, indeed anyone, to turn up.

This, then, is Randy’s life, and it’s not a little depressing. You might think of similar, grimly desperate lives lived in John Huston’s Fat City. But Randy lives for these bouts – the camaraderie, the sentimental codes of masculinity these men cling to. Then comes talk of a 20th anniversary rematch of the Madison Square Garden fight – “It could be history all over again.” Until, that is, events take a turn and Randy learns he can’t wrestle again. What follows is perhaps to be expected: he is forced to weigh up heading off into the sunset with Cassidy, if only she’ll have him, and patching things up with his estranged daughter (Wood), against taking the chance of that one, last, tempting bid for redemption in the ring, with the odds on surviving the fight clearly less than favourable.

The tragedy, of course, is that Randy is so completely in thrall to the delusory myth of wrestling that he’s even prepared to jeopardise his life. It’s the only thing he knows, the only thing he has control over. As Bruce Springsteen notes in his sparse, acoustic closing theme, “My only faith's in the broken bones and bruises I display.” Referencing his own life, Randy says “I am an old broken-down piece of meat. And I’m alone. And I deserve to be alone.” It’s wearying, self-pitying stuff. But then you see him, shot in slow-motion, walking into the ring to the guitar intro to Guns ‘n Roses’ “Sweet Child ‘O Mine”, and he’s purposeful, iconic, dominant; a different person entirely.

That Rourke is pretty much the sole subject of this review is, arguably, inevitable. He’s in every scene in the film, and his presence here is just as captivating as, say, Daniel Day Lewis was in There Will Be Blood. It is, you might say, a one-note movie; but it’s a very, very good note. Considering this is probably Rourke’s fifth or sixth comeback movie, it’s perhaps interesting that this is the first film to actually address his mooted return to form directly. The way Aronofsky shoots the film – hand-held camera, grainy film stock – references the New Hollywood movies of the Seventies, tacitly pitching Rourke against the great actors of the era (the De Niro of Raging Bull, conspicuously). These are men who Rourke was frequently compared to in his Eighties’ heyday, but here he’s at last given the opportunity to dine at their table.

MICHAEL BONNER

Rating: 4 / 10

(Opens January 16/ Cert 15/ 109 mins)


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