Posted by: ianstrope | April 1, 2009

2008 Oscar Nominee: The Wrestler

2008 | Director: Darren Aronofsky (“The Fountain,” “Requiem for a Dream”)| Writer: Robert D. Seigel (Ex-editor of The Onion)

wrestler
This film got some buzz during the award season, mostly featuring Mickey Rourke’s performance as past-his-prime professional wrestler Randy “The Ram.” Rourke, who himself has had a life spent boxing mostly since his popularity in the 80’s and early 90’s (“Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man,” anybody?) is no stranger to physical activity and it is evident in his fantastic performance.

In terms of direction Aronofsky commits what any 1st year theatre student knows to be a mistake: he shoots Randy while following him from behind. What this clever gimmick achieves is quickly apparent, as we gain the feeling of the wrestler’s size, and in his lumbering and heavy breathing, the sheer painful force of will that he must exert to move his body, a “beat up piece of meat.” In choosing to follow Rourke with a handheld camera in this manner Aronofsky literally gets out of the way and lets Rourke become The Wrestler. This is where the film’s greatest strength lies. Really it is in the performance of Rourke and how he plays this ailing man who is forced to deal with his own mortality. 

Most of what we learn about his past is conveyed in an opening collage of a wall of memorabilia and news clippings. As the plot unfolds in the 2 hours of screen time we come to see that, outside of the ring, Randy’s life is pretty miserable. He lives alone in a trailer scrapping out some money at a local grocery store where he does heavy labour working for comedian Todd Barry–who many won’t recognize as the voice of Romulox from ATHF. To relax he goes to the strip club and patronizes Marisa Tomei who, by being a stripper past her prime, serves as a kindred spirit/love interest. At some point Randy has a heart attack and is told he can no longer abuse his body with the drugs he’s been using to keep himself mobile. This motivates him to hunt down his estranged, college-age daughter, with whom he attempts to share a few tender moments with before screwing up and losing her trust yet again.

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 At this point I’m now confident that Randy’s story is not so much one of redemption as it is a tale of one extremely flawed individual’s struggle to exist and be authentic as a person and at what he does best. Wolverine has a saying in the X-men: “I’m the best there is at what I do.” For Randy this was true at one time, but unfortunately he possesses no mutant healing factor. He hurts and he bleeds for his fans and for their adulation; in this gruesome exhibition we see the absolute drive that Randy has as all too human.

It’s somewhat formulaic and kind of long but ultimately every scene has a purpose and works to reinforce Randy’s desolate situation and provide motivation for why he is willing to risk his life to find peace of mind in the ring. It’s the kind of movie you might watch alone and appreciate best without distraction; it’s also the kind of movie you probably won’t want to see again, but it will evoke emotion and genuine care for this meathead, which is an amazing achievement in and of itself. Rourke may not have deserved the Oscar but he certainly deserved the recognition that he received.

 Rating: Three and a half of five stars

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Responses

  1. I have to disagree with you about the “Camera-following” trope. Its not just to show Mickey’s size, and it certainly isn’t a ‘mistake’. Its the classic Scorsese move from Goodfellas: long trailing handheld camera scenes weaving through lots of chaotic scenes to build up intensity and excitement. You are right, that it lets Mickey be Mickey, but it simultaneously lets us get into his head, nearly taking his own perspective, and it also functions as a way of having him turn his back on us (and ultimately foreshadows him giving up on himself). It also functions to complement the plot, so you get the contrast of walking into the ring, and walking up to the deli counter.

    In any case, I thought this movie was just perfect, though I guess I have a weak spot for tragically pathetic characters. I didn’t find it to be formulaic or long, and I don’t know which parts you are referring to by that critique.

  2. I noted that not being able to see a character is often a mistake but I said in the review that Aronofsky knows what he’s doing so it is not a mistake in this film.

    In terms of formula I think you answered your own question. It’s a story about a “tragically pathetic” character and the plot follows that formula. Shity boss and unsatisfying job, tough down in the dumps living environment, romantic relationship that is delusional at best, estranged family that feels angry betrayed.

    Thanks for reading.

  3. Sure there wasn’t a lot of surprises in the movie besides Mickey’s performance, but the movie still managed to take my breath away and stuck inside my head for days afterwords. Redemption does not come to all, and in this way the film echos reality in a way so many films do not. But Mickey’s wrestler deals with that fact in the best way any of us can (which is what makes the film so good), with acceptance and in as good-natured a manner as possible.


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