Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Awards Season Review Part 2: The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke in the Wrestler

Professional wrestling demands more from its athletes than any other sport or any other kind of “sports entertainment”. With a rigorous schedule of 3-4 live shows a week, there’s no off-season, no all-star break, and no unions. The stars of yesteryear are lucky to hold a stable job within the business, luckier if they can find success somewhere else. Otherwise, the “has-beens” who can no longer get a decent pop from the sport’s rabid fans fade into relative obscurity.

Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler takes a fictional look into the life of a former pro-wrestler who fell from stardom. And although the film is fiction, the story is rooted deeply in truth.

The Wrestler has the feel of a documentary, partly because of the camera-work, but also due to the realism of the wrestling portions (an oxymoron?). The backstage wrestling lingo, the pre-match preparations, and the actual wrestling scenes are all legitimate, and add a great deal of authenticity to the film.

Mickey Rourke stars as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a Hulk Hogan-esque superstar from the 80’s who, twenty years later, fails to hold a steady job and finds himself wrestling in high school gymnasiums on weekends. Marisa Tomei plays Cassidy, a stripper whom “The Ram” befriends, and Evan Rachel Wood plays Stephanie, his estranged daughter.

The casting is excellent with Rourke as the lead, and Wood and Tomei in their supporting roles. The parallels to Rourke’s real life shines through his performance and it makes it that much better. Rourke’s scenes as The Ram in his “regular job” at a supermarket deli counter are some of his finest in the film; you see shades of the charisma and likability that made him a star, and ultimately you see the sad nature of his fall from grace.


The nature of the relationship between The Ram and Cassidy is beautifully imperfect, and serves as the arc around which the story develops. They are two individuals who share the misery of working in a business that doesn’t take kindly to old age and to watch their friendship develop is one of the more heartfelt parts of an otherwise sad film.

Mickey Rourke and Evan Rachel Wood in The Wrestler.

The more illustrative relationship of The Ram’s true character is the one he has with his daughter. Their exchanges do a great job of slinging the viewer back and forth between hating Rourke’s character for being such a terrible father while still feeling somewhat sorry for him.

One of the things that the film does well is capture that kind of complexity of the human condition. Nothing is ever really black and white, nothing is completely good or bad. For example, one moment, the viewer may find himself having no remorse for Randy “The Ram” as he pumps his body full of steroids, or goes on a late night binger. The next moment, when he finds himself amongst a group of handicapped old timers, you’ll feel sorry for a seemingly helpless victim to a ruthless business that once made him a star.


Even sadder than the film itself is its plot in the context of real life. Unfortunately, the story of Randy “The Ram” Robinson is something of a median compared to the lives of retired pro-wrestlers in the real world.

There are guys like Ric Flair, who still works for the WWE in his 60s, and the Rock, who makes boatloads of money as a star in Hollywood. On the other side of the spectrum you have guys like Brian Pillman (suicide), Kerry Von Erich (suicide), and Chris Benoit (double homicide, then suicide). Not to mention the countless many who died of drug overdose and the ones whose bodies have broken down from the beatings they put it through on the mat.

If I could describe The Wrestler in one word, it would be heavy. Heavy in the sometimes tumultuous scenes that Rourke has with Tomei and Wood, and heavy in the violence and drug use. The film’s intensity is off the charts; it’s a volatile combo of naked women, broken relationships, heavy drug use, and an extremely violent hardcore wrestling match.

There’s no doubt that the lives of pro-wrestlers outside of the ring is both tragic and fascinating, and The Wrestler captures both of those traits on film like a champion.

For Part 1 of the Awards Season Reviews, read Ray’s review of Milk.


  1. seems like indie movies are taking over the film industry (but what if all indie movies become mainstream? what becomes of the indie cinema scene?? oO)

    great review, maybe even better than your coverage of 'Revenge of the Sith' in '05.. ahaha