In Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, the time-honored sports genre is reimagined, yielding a uniquely touching story about loneliness and second chances. The story is familiar, as are the friendly giants that represent the arguably outdated world of professional wrestling. It follows Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a washed-up wrestler who peaked in the late ‘80s, but who keeps his passion for the sport alive by reviving “The Ram” at weekend matches. After suffering a heart attack, Randy is forced to give up the ring and decides to focus his attention on repairing his fractured personal life. The structure is predictable, but allows space for an unexpectedly careful, restrained depiction of life after fame.
Recreating the world of blue-collar middle America with highly-regarded Hollywood talent is no easy task, but the simplicity of Aronofsky’s dialogue and its rather dreary aesthetic make Randy’s world surprisingly believable. The first sequence borders on documentary as Randy is filmed making his way toward the exit of a neighborhood wrestling venue. His bleach-blonde locks pull the camera away from Randy’s face and give the distinct impression that the heroic athlete has more life behind him than he has ahead.
The great irony of this film is that it exploits the most artificial sport performed by the most physically artificial actor in Hollywood to achieve a rare level of sincerity. Fortunately, the effect is endearing. The sympathy with which Aronofsky traces his protagonist’s transformation doesn’t disguise Randy’s flaws, but celebrates his bond to the everyman.
One of the few ways in which the film falls short is in the unconvincing, yet admittedly moving relationship between Randy and his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). Randy’s attempt to repair their troubled relationship proves as predictable as it is sentimental in a film that prides itself on authenticity.
At its best, The Wrestler is a film about the desperate effort any great artist makes to escape the profound loneliness that accompanies a) his professional fall from grace, and b) the tediousness of an unfulfilling day job that leaves personalities as restless and robust as Randy’s wanting. The film reminds me in some ways of John Cassavettes’s intimate portrait of a mediocre strip club proprietor in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. While The Wrestler is much cleaner and more conventional than most of Cassavettes’s work, both films are about the lengths to which men will go to defend their (rather unhealthy) dreams. They both portray extraordinarily passionate individuals and demonstrate the casual mercilessness with which artistic infatuation is fettered by practicality.
The film closes by capturing Randy at his most transcendent—bruised, bleeding, gasping for air as the evidence of his debilitating surgery glitters with perspiration. With his arms spread and his feet pressed together, Randy’s glorious final frame cannot help but recall Jesus. He’s kind, he’s misunderstood, and he makes the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of his loyal followers—the fans.