Mickey Rourke stars as a has-been wrestler named Randy the Ram, once a star
in the glitzy rock 'n wrestling era of the 1980s, now in his 50s and relegated
to a minor local circuit. Today's bush league action is most similar to wrestling
back in the seventies, pre-Wrestlemania, when the matches would feature
splatter and the wrestlers would cut themselves to make the blood flow more
dramatically. Rasslin' may not be a sport in one sense, because the outcome is
pre-determined, but the best wrestlers are spectacularly athletic, and many
of them endure as much pain as NFL interior linemen. Maybe more. If you doubt
it, you try cutting your own forehead with a razor, or getting thrown over the top ropes.
It won't feel fake, no matter how many times you practice it. In the
minor leagues which comprise Randy's world, the stunts are even wilder and more daring
than anything seen in the WWE because the matches have to be sensational to attract fans
to a high school gym when they could be watching the heavily marketed big-time
promotions on TV. Director Darren Aronofsky portrays the small-time wrestling world
in excruciating detail, and populates the action with the real denizens of
that demimonde, who team with Rourke to recreate the grittiest extremes of
After one particularly bloody battle involving shattered glass, barbed
wire, tacks, and a stapler gun, Randy the Ram collapses in the dressing room
and doesn't regain full consciousness until weeks later, after a by-pass
operation. He knows he's going to have to live with the agony, but that's the
easy part of his new life, because he's no stranger to pain. The difficult
part for him to accept is that he is going to have to quit wrestling. This
pill is particularly hard to swallow in light of the fact that he had recently
been signed to compete in a match that could have been his big comeback, a
rematch of one of his legendary battles from the 1980s against an "Iranian"
wrestler named The Ayatollah, who is actually a guy named Bob, now a used car dealer in
With that comeback off the table, The Ram tries to create a new life
outside of wrestling, but is largely
unsuccessful. He is treated with contempt by a supermarket manager, who tells
him there is no work available except on weekends, and even then only on the
deli counter, where he will have to stuff his long blond hair into a hairnet.
The unfavorable employment situation leaves The Ram unable to pay the bills.
On another front, he tries to establish a
normal relationship with a woman, but doesn't really know how to go about it,
choosing the wrong woman (an aging stripper), and courting her clumsily.
Elsewhere, he tries to mend fences with his estranged daughter, but just as he
starts to make some progress, he screws up and makes everything even worse
than it was. Given that he fails at everything he tries outside the ring, he
sees no other alternative to getting back into the ring, even though his
doctor has warned him that such a decision would probably be a fatal one.
The film is rich with details, foreshadowing and parallels, presented in the manner
of a work of literature. The stripper and the wrestler sometimes don't seem to
realize how similar they are, both too old to be in an entertainment form that
requires perfect physicality. Her frustrations are presented in synch with his
own. One of the most stirring parallels occurs when Randy's first experience in the deli counter is presented with
a special flair. The camera follows The Ram's walk through the back corridors
of the grocery store and through the employee break room, until he pushes through the curtain
that leads into the customer area, his stride gradually evolving from a bedraggled shamble to a
cocky strut. That's all presented as a precise parallel to the routine he used
to follow to get from the wrestler's dressing room to the arena, missing only the rock
anthem and the roar of the crowd.
Great little touches.
Despite all the clever literary tropes, the script would not work if we didn't care about Randy the Ram,
and that could easily have happened, because
Ram just plain blows every chance he's given, and has only himself to blame. He
could have mended his relationship with his daughter with only a minimal
effort, but he got high and got laid instead, thus forgetting an important
appointment with her and continuing a lifetime streak of broken promises. He
could also have made a living in the deli. He was doing a great job after he
realized he could get the hang of customer relations by flattering the women
and amusing the guys, but he wasn't patient enough to put up with the bull we
all have to put up with in real world jobs. He could even have gotten the girl of
his dreams. When he finally broke through the defenses of the stripper he had
been courting, she walked off the stage during her own routine and drove
hundreds of miles to keep him from endangering his life by going back into the
ring. But he ignored her pleas and decided to fight anyway.
He's just a big time screw-up who's incapable of handling anything outside
the ring, and it would be easy to dislike him or to pity him condescendingly, but the script and Rourke's
empathetic performance bring us into his world, and allow us to forgive him
his trespasses. Yes, sometimes we pity him, and sometimes we want to slap some sense
into him for screwing up every chance he gets, but most of the time he
engages us, and we can see his fundamental decency. Most important, we can see that we
might screw up in similar ways if we had to wear his shoes.
It's impossible for me to imagine anyone else but Mickey Rourke in this role. He's basically
playing himself. After all, wrestlers are actors, so this is a story about an
actor who was big in the 80s, but "the nineties fuckin' sucked," and he has to
struggle to make a comeback in the new millennium. The Mickster has not only
lived the role, but he has the body for it. The Ram is a wrestler, and Mickey
himself was a boxer, and thus has both the physique and the pain tolerance
necessary for the role. His performance is not just the result of having
already lived the part. He also worked his ass off to deliver the role. He
built up plenty of extra muscle before filming began, and learned wrestling
from the insiders. His performance is in every sense, to resort to a cliché, a
tour de force.
Despite the best reviews of the year (98% of them were positive, according
to Rotten Tomatoes) and a sure-fire Oscar nomination for Mickey Rourke, The
Wrestler will struggle to find an audience for various reasons:
* It's a work of art in the sense that it was not created to be
commercially viable, but to tell the story the way the filmmakers wanted to
tell it. The film is never afraid to be unsatisfying. That fact would
ordinarily make it a natural for the indy circuit and the arthouse crowd,
but the turtleneck set is not really the natural audience for a story about
the nuts and bolts of small-time pro wrestling, so one wonders what the
target audience might actually consist of.
* It's certainly not going to play for family audiences because it has
some ten minutes of strip club action, a short but wild sex scene, and
various graphic looks at the S&M aspects of the local wrestling bouts.
* Mainstream audiences are going to find it simultaneously too arty and
I'm thinking that the box office numbers will be unimpressive, but I hope
I'm wrong because everyone who loves movies should see the Mickster pour his heart into this