An aging pro wrestler is forced to cut his career due to health reasons. The harsh reality of “normal” New Jersey existence slams into him like a speeding tractor trailer when he realizes that outside of the ring he is actually a complete fuck-up. Then he continues being a fuck-up.
The Wrestler is a Darren Aronofsky’s exploratory journey into the land of gritty, depressing realism. The director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain stays clear of his favored surreal mysteries, oneiric sequences and unreliable narration, and instead chooses to tell a very simple and linear story. He whips out a magnifying glass and tries to expose the ugliness and despair of the mundane, and ordinary life. And he pulls it off quite well.
The movie is actually painful to watch. Every shot, wallows in the lingering awkwardness of human interaction, every closeup is unfavorable, every dialog makes you cringe. But not because it is badly written, but because of the way the characters blunder their way through their dull, profoundly unhappy lives. It is like watching a man taking a leisure backstroke swim through a river of emotional anguish and mental excrement.
Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson - a has-been pro wrestler forced to retire due to a worsening heart condition. A brush with death, and brief hospitalization forces him to re-evaluate his life. He has no friends, no family and no prospects. Outside of the ring, he is a nobody - an uneducated, crude lonely old man who will probably die alone without anybody ever noticing.
He tries to pick up the pieces: he reconnects with his estranged daughter, he gets a shitty job and bonds with his favorite stripper. The movie documents this journey in a painstaking, detail. His little victories are quiet and subdued, glanced over without much celebration. But when he trips up, Aronofsky swoops in with a microscope to make sure you see every tiny element of Randy’s failure. The effect you watch one man’s profound struggle to actually live an ordinary life. At the very basic level, it is more or less a schadenfreude porn. A better one than any reality TV series train wreck could ever deliver. A spectacular train wreck, much more impressive than the one from that other movie.
Like all Aronofsky movies, The Wrestler is rather existential. It is a tragedy of a man with a one track mind. Randy’s main problem - the source of all his misfortune - is his inability to re-spec, and reinvent himself. He reminds me of an Eldar Exarch - singularly obsessed and doomed to walk the path of the warrior for the rest of his life. Randy’s mind is intensely focused, and absorbed with being a wrestler almost to exclusion of everything else. His self esteem, self image and feeling of self worth are inexplicably wrapped around and linked to his fading career. He has no hobbies, no interests, no social life. He lives for the ring. When he is bored he plays wrestling games on his SNES. When he is in a bar, he tells stories about his wrestling exploits. He is not a rounded person, nor an interesting one. He is like a human vuvuzela - an instrument capable of playing only a single note, albeit very loudly.
As a person with a wide myriad of waxing and waning interests, passions and callings I found it both fascinating and terrifying to watch. A glimpse into a strange and alien mind, I found hard to relate to, but easy to empathize with. I see this film as a cautionary tale of what happens when you overspecialize, and allow your path to define you as a person. It is a story of a man whose personality got tangled up in his work so completely that it derailed his entire life.
Both Rourke and Tomei deliver stellar performances. Aronofsky’s guides the viewers through this achingly real and painful experience with laser guided precision. He manages to get them to connect with a seemingly unsympathetic, brute, a dead beat parent and a single minded thug. Even if you can’t relate to Randy, even if you don’t think he is a good person, you end up rooting for him, as he muddles his way through his depressing life. Aronofsky manages to squeeze every drop of profundity out of the ugly and mundane.
Yes, the story is linear and predictable. Yes, it is not the most original subject matter. But sometimes it is all about how you tell the story, and not what is it about.
It is a violent, shocking ride through the dregs of the ordinary boring life of a man who lost his identity to an obsession with sport he can no longer participate in.