What a remarkable film The Wrestler is, with several outstanding performances. Above all, a career performance from Mickey Rourke, whose brilliant Randy the Ram character likely has a bunch of Rourke’s own DNA at its core. Evan Rachel Wood impresses in a her scenes as the long-lost daughter with Daddy issues who stops seething only long enough to get her emotional scabs picked open again. And Marisa Tomei continues to bring heart and soul to the screen – her performance in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was noteworthy but her daring turn as the damaged stripper Cassidy is absolutely stunning. Director Darren Aronofsky’s cinéma vérité style is perfect for the material; we’re almost flies on the wall in a documentary of this broken man’s life. But it’s the bleak settings, from destitute trailer parks to sad high school gymnasiums to the just-above-water lifestyle of these characters, which sells the story.
Cassidy and Randy are leading parallel lives. Both work under stage names and use (and abuse) their bodies to make a living, and as they get older it provides a rude awakening. We see Cassidy being mocked by young guys in the VIP Room for being “as old as (my) Mom!” while more and more customers at the front rail pass on a chance to savor her charms. Randy might have the memories of his glory days thumb tacked to the inside of his van, but the effort it takes to rev up and wind down gets longer and more excruciating every time. Life is not very forgiving to stage warriors Cassidy and Randy, and even less so to the real life Pam and Robin.
Cassidy is adamant that she cannot cross “the line” with a customer because the club and the real world don’t mix, yet she pines to be seen as a mother and person, not a stripper. Yet when she gets too close to having an honest moment as Pam, she recoils not because of her ethical stance, but out of fear. Her moment of truth occurs in the midst of another mindless stage routine, when she surveys the club and sees just how shallow her world is. Realizing that Randy might be a kindred spirit trying to reach out to the real Pam, she makes an attempt to reconnect – and save? – another lost soul. But in a movie filled with bad timing, she is “too little too late.”
Randy’s aversion of his real name (Robin Ramstein) is his shield because he’s a failure as a person. He can only connect with people as “The Ram”, but years of doing so have left him with a clouded grip on what is real in his life. His only true adulation comes from the fellow wrestlers who understand the life and look up to him. His boss (Todd Barry at his smarmy best) mocks him, his landlord won’t cut him any slack, and the strippers only like him if he has money. The trailer park kids treat him like a benign freak, but even his feeble effort to connect with them are thwarted because he’s a Nintendo man in a Playstation world.
Randy sees his future at the humbling “Legends” autograph show, where the paltry few attendees gingerly circle the ravaged, ailing wrestlers like buzzards too late for the feast. He finally sees himself as others are starting to see him; a broken down man with nothing to cling to, and worse, no hope. He couldn’t make it as a husband and father the first time, and he’s unable to maintain a re-connection with his daughter now because he succumbs to his bad habits. He can’t even leverage a tender moment with Pam because he’s so used to quick, physical encounters instead of true feelings. He doesn’t know what to do in life; when he can follow the script in a match, he knows what to do, but outside that ring he’s as helpless as he is hopeless. When Stephanie finally tears into him for being a fuck-up and shuts him down forever, he can’t even muster another apology. It took admitting to being “a broken down piece of meat (who) deserves to be alone” to get her to thaw from years of alienation, only to have that very inadequacy shut that door for good. Even the one thing that was a glimmer of hope – an old photo in a wallet – is now proof of failure. (Even the delusions of recapturing his fame are exposed by the dwindling crowds and small venues. The highly touted 20th Anniversary Ayatollah rematch doesn’t take place in Madison Square Garden but in a tiny arena in Wilmington, Delaware.)
Despite the rejection and alienation, there is a moment when you think (hope?) Randy might somehow weather the storm and survive. His fear of dealing with people is so strong that when he accepts the deli counter job he has to imagine himself entering the work area like he enters the arena, albeit met with total silence in place of screams and cheers. But in simple customer requests and interaction, he finds dignity. This new persona – the real Robin – has a charming ability to playfully interact with the customers. But when he is recognized as the has-been Ram, these two worlds collide, and this simple safe area is now stained with failure. He snaps. “Robin”, he disgustedly sneers to himself afterwards, as if to say “what was I doing pretending to be normal?” As he tells Cassidy at the end of the film, referring to life outside the ring, “the only place I get hurt is out there. The world don’t give a shit about me”.
Yet that’s why the ending of The Wrestler is uplifting. After all the failures and mistakes and humiliation, Randy is finally at peace. He’s ended up right where he belongs, he has one more moment of validation, and nothing will ever hurt him again.
(This review written for Ureview)