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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Review: The Wrestler (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

When it comes to Darren Aronofsky, I’m a bad film buff. I’ve seen parts of Requiem For A Dream, all of which were so depressing that I haven’t been able to fortify myself to the point where I feel like I can sit through the whole thing, Pi is hard to find, and I just haven’t gotten around to seeing The Fountain, and so The Wrestler is my first experience with him as a filmmaker. From what I can tell, this is the most accessible of his films – certainly it’s his most acclaimed and it’s totally deserving of that acclaim.

Mickey Rourke stars as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a wrestler who enjoyed considerable popularity in the 1980s but has seen his fame – and way of life – diminish in the ensuing two decades. He’s still wrestling, playing in small venues for small pay and barely able to make ends meet. At the beginning of the film he returns home to his trailer to find himself locked out for failing to pay the rent and is forced to spend the night in his van. We get the feeling that this isn’t an unusual occurrence for him and this is one of several moments when the film shows him reduced and on the brink of despair, but somehow finding a way to endure. Things begin to look up for him when a promoter begins talking about organizing a rematch between Randy and his old rival The Ayatolla, which promises to restore him to some of his former glory. There are, however, complications.

Over the years, Randy’s commitment to his sport has taken an incredible toll on his body. There are parts of this film that I found very difficult to watch not only because of the violence, but because of the context. The wrestling ring, in which participants make use of barbed wire, a staple gun, and glass, amongst other things, is like a modern day Roman Coliseum and the more blood is shed, the happier and more entertained the audience is. It’s a really ugly commentary on the culture of entertainment and on the demands we put on entertainers in exchange for our attention.

His health problems force Randy to reconsider the rematch and the prospect of giving up wrestling forces him to confront the unpleasant things in his life, particularly his loneliness. He has a daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), with whom he has a difficult relationship stemming from the fact that he’s been absent for most of her life. It’s a fraught and compelling relationship but, somehow, not quite as compelling as the one Randy forms with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper with whom he fancies he could have some kind of romance. She plays multiple roles in his life from shrink (their first scene together is as much a therapy session as it is a lap dance) to friend, but he’s oblivious to the reasons why they’ll never progress beyond the (relatively) platonic.

Regardless of whatever affection they may have for each other, the film makes it clear why a romantic relationship between them would never work. They’re similar in many ways, which the film isn’t shy about pointing out, framing them in the same way on a number of occasions. Both are, at least once, shot from behind, waiting to go through a curtain and take the stage to perform. Both are also shown isolated in a work situation, made vulnerable by the lack of fanfare to their presence. Randy gravitates naturally towards Cassidy because she’s a mirror – someone past prime but still trying to etch out a living. However, there’s an important difference between them that Randy doesn’t see, but that Cassidy probably does. For Cassidy, performance comes out of economic necessity and her stage persona is something she wants to leave behind. She doesn’t want to be Cassidy the stripper, she wants to be Pam, the person. Randy, on the other hand, wants to be the stage persona rather than settle for being Robin, the regular guy. He performs not because it pays the bills – his wrestling is actually detrimental to his economic stability as it leaves him with less time to devote to his day job – but because it allows him to be, even if only for a few minutes, that person that he aspires to be.

Rourke and Tomei play off of each other very well and each delivers a performance marked by subtlety and restraint. I wish the same could be said of Wood, who really ought to have dialled it back just a little bit. Her performance, particularly in her first scene, is just a bit overwrought and it’s difficult not to notice that when she’s sharing the screen with Rourke in scenes shot in such an intimate fashion. It’s not a bad performance, mind you, and the quiet scenes between Randy and Stephanie, when she has declared a kind of truce with him, are very good but in the scenes where emotions are heightened her performance gets very showy.

The Wrestler is shot in a very stripped down way that perfectly complements Randy and his life, which has become so devoid of frills. It’s a well-made film in every way and yet... something about it left me feeling cold. Admittedly, this may be the result of all the hype that’s been surrounding it for months and if I see it again later, I might find myself more emotionally engaged with it. Still, it’s a film that I appreciated a lot on an intellectual level.


Reel Whore said...

Great review. I've seen all of Aronfosky's film except the Fountain and find them engaging. I usually hate drug-intense films, but Requiem had me riveted.

The Wrestler was awesome. It stirred memories of my high school days watching wrestling. I'd like to know if a re-viewing will alter your opinion.

Norma Desmond said...

Yeah, I'll definitely have to revist it towards the end of the year. My judgment may have been clouded by end of Oscar season malaise.

Reel Whore said...

Hype and buzz make such a huge impact on expectation. I try to steer clear from as much of it as possible, but that's practically impossible nowadays.