16) The Wrestler (2008)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Robert D. Siegel
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei & Evan Rachel Wood
After telling the most convoluted story possible in 2006’s The Fountain (a film I very much enjoyed, but hey, it was hard to follow), Darren Aronofsky went the opposite direction with The Wrestler. A wise move, too, as it’s his best film yet. This is a simple script, stripped right down to the bone — an emotionally raw character study focused on a bottom-rung performer at the end of his rope.
Mickey Rourke is Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a 1980s pro-wrestling star who now can no longer afford to pay rent on his trailer. Robinson has long been forgotten by the big leagues, but he’s still plying his trade on the independent circuit in New Jersey. After a particularly brutal hardcore match, “Ram” collapses beside his locker and wakes up in the hospital. His heart is failing him and he likely won’t be able to wrestle any longer.
The movie has a simple but effective style. Much of the film uses the behind-the-back tracking camera seen during the “backstage” portions of most wrestling telecasts, only it uses that shot to show what really happens behind the scenes. These are some of the film’s best moments, as these rather ridiculous-looking tough guys break character to show they are regular people, they just happen to beat the hell out of each other for a living. The pre-match planning is particularly fascinating, especially the one for that hardcore match, where the movie jumps back and forth in time between the men backstage laying out their physical limits beforehand and the actual bloody mayhem they’re discussing.
I will admit, part of the reason it’s so interesting to me is that when I was around 11 years old, I kind of wanted to be a wrestler when I grew up. Kind of a lot. Yikes, that is embarrassing even to type. It was a good time to be watching, as Steve Austin and The Rock were at their peaks then. I knew it was scripted, obviously, but it was tough not to be taken in by the larger-than-life personas and charisma of these men. Maybe I was just young and foolish, and it was just as bad then as it is today, but there was something grandiose about it back in the day. There’s a reason Dwayne Johnson is now a movie star.
I’m glad I never followed that dream. The physical toll that Rourke puts on his body in this movie, most of them self-inflicted wounds for added drama and showmanship, look awfully painful. “Sure it hurts,” he says, “but you hear the roar of the crowd and you power through it.” Randy lives to hear that roar of the crowd. He doesn’t have much of a life aside from it. His estranged daughter (Wood) hates him and it seems the only person he has a connection with is a stripper named Cassidy (Tomei). It is a sad, lonely life. At a fan signing event, Randy looks around the room at the crippled and aging former stars surrounding him, and it pains him to realize he is becoming one of them.
As a character study it really depends on the quality of its actors, and the performances are excellent. Rourke’s character is self-destructive by nature and hard to root for, but it is simultaneously such a warm performance. His interactions with people, be it the customers at his supermarket deli job or the boys who live in his trailer park, are natural and funny. Tomei gives a very good performance as well, and I’m not just saying that because she’s half-naked for most of her screen-time. Wood only gets three scenes, but each pack the movie’s most emotionally potent moments.
The parallels and differences between the two leads are quite well-drawn. They are both performers to some degree — they both use stage names. Randy “The Ram” Robinson is really Robin Ranzinski; “Cassidy” goes by Pam. For Robin the performance is his whole life, but Pam can’t wait to be rid of her alter-ego. For her being a good mom is priority #1, while Randy (don’t call me Robin) walked out on his daughter in pursuit of the crowd. He leads a tortured life, and can only find release by literally self-destructing for our enjoyment.
It’s a very dark film visually, with heavy use of shadow and black. It sets the proper tone, but there is a surprising amount of comedy in the script and performances. Speaking of tone, Clint Mansell’s score is subtle and unobtrusive, but emotionally rousing at the right moments. On every level it’s a well-made film, but Rourke’s performance is what propels it to greatness. After a fun comeback in Sin City, The Wrestler put Rourke back in the big leagues. It is a mammoth performance, hitting every note on the emotional scale, and it’s a shame he couldn’t win the Oscar as he likely won’t get another opportunity.
Revisiting the film I was initially sceptical of whether it should make the list, but it still packs the same punch each time I watch it. That’s the mark of a great film, and the power of a great performance.