THE WRESTLER (2008)
Director: Darren Aronofsky

I am a fan of professional wrestling. I've always been a little hesitant to admit that, because pro wrestling does carry a certain stigma. People have said to me, "How can you watch that garbage? Don't you know it's all fake?" And to that I reply, "Yeah, but just because Julia Roberts isn't really a prostitute doesn't mean I can yell at people for liking Pretty Woman." Yes, the storylines are scripted, the moves are choreographed, and the match finishes are predetermined. But the physical toll it takes on its performers can be very real. The bumps and bruises, the concussions and torn muscles and broken bones, they're real. Just ask guys like Darren Drozdov and Tom "Dynamite Kid" Billington, whose in-ring exploits have left them confined to wheelchairs. And because of the high risk of injuries, a lot of wrestlers end up getting addicted to painkillers and cocaine and all kinds of other crap, anything to numb the pain. That's why you see so many wrestlers die before the age of forty, thanks to the drug addiction and physical punishment catching up to them. I'm not going to say that's the case with every wrestler, but it tends to happen quite a bit. However, it's usually glossed over and dismissed by most people. Pro wrestling is just some two-bit freak show whose participants are roided-up jackasses in spandex being cheered on by a bunch of brain-dead rubes, so who cares?

Rarely, though, does someone try to shine a light on just what wrestlers put themselves through. Filmmaker Barry Blaustein's fantastic documentary Beyond the Mat was a revealing peek behind the curtain when it was released during the peak of modern pro wrestling's popularity in 1999, but that curtain was completely yanked away by Darren Aronofsky in the winter of 2008. The director of the intense independent movies π and Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky decided to tackle the realm of "sports-entertainment" with his fourth movie, appropriately titled The Wrestler. And just like the world it depicts, The Wrestler is both entertaining and heartbreaking.

THE WRESTLER (2008)Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was the hottest wrestling star of the '80s. He sold out arenas across the country, was in the main event matches of numerous pay-per-view broadcasts, and had his likeness featured in a video game and as an action figure. But twenty years later, Randy is no longer the superstar he once was. He is a pale shadow of his former self, having gone from the top of the mountain to the lowest valley. He lives in a rundown trailer park, doing shows in front of a few dozen people in tiny community centers and high school gymnasiums for what equates to gas money.

But the change in scenery hasn't put a damper on his passion for the business. Unfortunately, though, the scenery isn't the only change coming to Randy's life. He suffers a heart attack and collapses in the locker room after a particularly violent and bloody match. The heart attack necessitates cardiac bypass surgery, and Randy's doctor implores him to retire from wrestling before his heart gives out permanently.

Dismayed by the news and fearing his own mortality, Randy cancels all of his upcoming matches and tries his hand at a normal, everyday existence. He asks his boss for longer hours at the supermarket he calls his day job, takes a shot at turning his friendship with a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) into something more, and tries to rebuild a bridge he burned long ago by reconnecting with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).

But he misses the life his heart attack took away from him. A promoter comes to Randy and proposes a match against his most famous opponent, "the Ayatollah" (Ernest Miller), on the twentieth anniversary of their legendary pay-per-view bout that sold out Madison Square Garden back in the '80s. Though common sense tells him he shouldn't, Randy considers taking the match, despite the risk that it just may be the death of him.

Professional wrestling's inherently over-the-top nature has left it ripe for movies like Body Slam, No Holds Barred, Ready to Rumble, and Nacho Libre to use the pseudo-sport as part of their narratives. There've even been episodes of Quantum Leap, Family Matters, and Boy Meets World dedicated to the lead characters stepping into the ring. Legendary grappler Verne Gagne even produced and starred in a movie about pro wrestling in 1974. But with the exception of a few documentaries, wrestling has almost always been depicted as being either an actual legitimate sport, or as the stereotypically goofy spectacle that non-fans perceive it to be. Very rarely has it been treated with anything resembling respect or in a fashion that wouldn't completely insult the intelligence of pretty much everyone.

But then along came The Wrestler. It's refreshing to see a movie where wrestlers are treated like actual human beings. But it's not just a wrestling movie, either. Pro wrestling could be a completely inconsequential detail. The movie could have been about a boxer or a football player or a race car driver. It is simply a movie about an athlete who is so unwaveringly dedicated to his sport of choice that he simply cannot imagine a life without it. Even if he has to work for peanuts while his body falls apart, sleep in a car when can't stay in his house, and lose everything else in his life, he's dedicated to what he does.

Part of what makes The Wrestler so effective is Darren Aronofsky's direction. Aronofsky and cinematographer Maryse Alberti shoot the movie with handheld cameras on grainy 16mm film, making it look as if it were a documentary instead of a fictional movie. It makes things more intimate, like we're simply following Randy around. That's seems especially evident during not only during the scenes with Randy before and after his matches, but during the beginning of the movie itself. The camera literally follows behind Mickey Rourke as his character goes through his post-match routine, leaves the arena, and returns to his trailer park home for the night. Aronofsky doesn't even give us a good look at Rourke's face until several minutes into the movie. This sets the tone for the entire film. We are simply observers, along for the ride that Randy the Ram is taking through this incredibly rough patch in his life.

It helps that Aronofsky is working from an amazing script, written by Robert Siegel. I'll admit that seeing his name in the credits threw me for a loop at first, because his only previous writing credit was The Onion Movie. That was a super-offbeat comedy, so how would he handle something like this? Turns out he did a fantastic job. Siegel has written a character study about a man who, as I said, simply cannot give up what he loves in spite of how much damage it could do. He's so enamored with his glory days that, when they're over, he's unsure of how to pick up the pieces of the mess that could have been a happy future. This makes the movie alternately compelling yet tragic, because we want to root for the main character yet cry because of where he's ended up.

I also found it intriguing that Siegel used the characters of Randy and Cassidy to parallel one another. They're really two sides of the same coin. Hiding behind fake names, they both use their bodies to perform in front of small crowds for meager paydays. But while Cassidy wants to quit stripping and live her life as a single mother named Pam, Randy is quite the opposite. He wears a hearing aid, hates his real name and won't hesitate to correct people when they say it. He has a daughter who can't stand the sight of him, and a boss who spends his time mocking Randy when he's not watching pornography on his office computer. And he's stuck sleeping in his van when he can't make the rent on his trailer. His real life is a mess, and he'd much rather live in the glory days of Randy "The Ram" Robinson instead of as a loser named Robin Ramzinski.

But what ultimately makes The Wrestler worth watching is its cast. There aren't many actual actors in the movie, but the ones that do appear put forth fantastic performances. Among the very small supporting cast, Evan Rachel Wood is great as Randy's daughter. Every word of dialogue that Wood speaks drips with the years of heartache and frustration the character is bound to feel, making her utterly sympathetic. And I'll admit that I also liked Todd Barry in his very small yet quite funny role as Randy's boss at the supermarket. But both lead performers are where the best acting comes from. Marisa Tomei is superb here, playing her character with warmth and conviction. Tomei hadn't done many movies of note between The Wrestler and her Oscar-winning role in My Cousin Vinny, but she proves here that she's a damn fine acress who can hang with the best of them.

However, if you need any single reason to see The Wrestler, that reason should be the contributions from Mickey Rourke. The story goes that Nicolas Cage had been hired to play Randy the Ram, but he ultimately left the movie during pre-production and opened the door for Rourke to take the role. This works in the movie's favor, because while I'll admit to enjoying Cage's work, I can't imagine anyone but Rourke as the star of this movie. Rourke is absolutely amazing, to the point that you're able to forget you're watching an actor playing a character. You're not watching a performance, but Randy "The Ram" Robinson baring his soul for all to see. Rourke makes Randy feel as if he had come to life, playing the character with such pathos that you can't help but feel sympathy for him. The character is a failure, who the wrestling business — and life in general — has pretty much left behind. He's stuck pining for the '80s, pining for a better life that constantly evades him. Rourke perfectly demonstrates that, playing Randy as if he's realized his life sucks, yet refuses to take off his rose-colored nostalgia glasses. It's fantastic acting on his part, a performance that will more than likely take a permanent spot on Rourke's career highlight reel.

The Wrestler is nothing short of a triumph. The story it tells is a heartbreaking one, doubly so if you're a wrestling fan like me. I heard that it even made Rowdy Roddy Piper cry. It is a stellar movie from start to finish, with excellent acting, intimate direction, and fantastic writing. I know that movies about pro wrestling are a hard sell to non-fans, but I honestly cannot recommend The Wrestler enough. If you have yet to see it, then you're missing out on what I'd call one of the best movies of the decade. I'll gladly give The Wrestler four and a half stars on my usual Five-Star Sutton Scale, and ask that non fans overlook any preconceived notions they may have about pro wrestling and give the movie a shot.

Final Rating: ****


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