Rourke victorious in stunning Wrestler

by Glen Baity

Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair aside, professional wrestling isn’t generally an old man’s game. What happens to those guys who age out of the big time? For a lot of them, the obscurity after the spotlight is tough, and a lifetime of premature joint and back pain doesn’t make it any easier. The dark side of

the profession doesn’t get a lot of play in the movies, but these stories are as old as wrestling itself. That’s one of the reasons Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, opening Friday at the Carousel, is such a fascinating

picture. The film follows Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a minor legend who peaked in the 1980s during professional wrestling’s golden age. Twenty years past his prime when we meet him, Randy has lost everything and lives in a trailer park. He struggles to pay the rent by working a lousy job and supplementing his income with matchups on the nostalgia circuit at local VA halls and National Guard armories. But decades of hard living have taken their toll. Randy is in constant pain from years of hard knocks, and his livelihood becomes suddenly uncertain when he suffers a heart attack after a brutal hardcore bout. Ordered by his doctor to quit the business altogether, the attack places Randy at a crossroads: Does he finally step away from what’s left of the limelight and become a regular working stiff? Or does he press on for one final, career-defining match, even if it might kill him? The film preoccupies itself with the question of whether Randy can make it in the square world, or if he should even try. Can a guy who calls himself the Ram punch a clock for the rest of his life? His story is juxtaposed with that of the aging stripper (Marisa Tomei) Randy loves. She also depends on her body for her living, and like Randy, hers is in the process of betraying her. These two are the very definition of lost souls, people adrift in a world that has stopped making sense, so it’s no surprise that they take a little comfort in each other’s company.

Written by Robert D. Siegel (a former editor of The Onion), Darren Aronofsky’s film boasts a lot of emotional complexity, though it might not seem like it on the surface. The Wrestler has a low-budget, washed-out look that is the polar opposite of professional wrestling’s glossy sheen. And like a good wrestling match, you have to look closely to appreciate the amount of work that has gone into it. There’s a lot happening beneath the surface here, and it’s all conveyed perfectly by Rourke, whose performance is every bit as good as the hype it has generated. He captures the indomitable spirit of this character, who has nothing but his memories and the adulation of dwindling crowds to keep him going. Not to be overshadowed, Tomei turns in her own excellent performance as Cassidy, whose flirty smile also masks deep scars.

The Wrestler is a comeback tale of sorts, but Randy isn’t Rocky Balboa. Because wrestling is scripted, its performers are most often seen as empty-headed muscle men undeserving of their fame. The reality is that these guys sacrifice their lives and their bodies for this weird, uniquely American enterprise, and they know they won’t ever get very much respect for it. There’s a sadness implied in that fact that is written all over Randy’s face, and it makes the world of the film unique among cinematic underdog stories. Even if Randy makes it to his Big Match, there won’t be any statues erected in his honor. Aronofsky understands this, and is careful never to strip his character of his dignity. Instead, the camera follows the wrestler like a member of his entourage, even though the Ram’s strut isn’t what it used to be. Randy is a man unwilling to sell his soul to fit in, and there’s a reverence in this portrayal that makes The Wrestler one of the best films of 2008, and will ultimately make it a classic.