Sunday, February 8, 2009
The Passion of … : The Wrestler
Singers don’t stop being singers because the crowd goes away. A musician’s talent is just as significant alone beside a campfire as in public before screaming fans. Competitive athletes can challenge one another, or themselves, as authentically on empty fields, courts and fairways as in sold-out stadiums, gymnasiums and golf courses. But what about professional wrestlers – hybrids of artistry and athleticism? For them, it’s different. Theirs is a craft that relies upon the response of an audience. When the crowd goes away, the skills of a professional wrestler become irrelevant. Magicians can relate. So can comedians. So can strippers.
Darren Aronfsky’s The Wrestler finds two of these audience-dependent performers losing their significance. Mickey Rourke is Randy “The Ram,” a somebody of professional wrestling two decades ago who is now just slightly more than a nobody. Marisa Tomei is Cassidy, a stripper with a rock-hard body that most 20-year-olds would envy and a face that reveals her double-that age. In image-based businesses, Randy and Cassidy no longer fit the prototypes. They are like Mouseketeers who have outgrown their ears. Once the ideal, they have become novelty acts perilously close to losing their novelty. That’s what they have in common. What separates them is the degree to which they self-identify by their professional personas. Randy, whose real name is Robin, has played his stage character so long that he struggles to find the private man inside. Cassidy, whose real name is Pam, steadfastly separates her professional role from her private life, struggling only when the lines begin to blur. And so it goes.
The Wrestler examines the inevitable loneliness that plagues those who must please others in order to please themselves. The self-centeredness that has estranged Randy from his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) belies the darker truth that Randy lives for the approval of others. Stephanie gets the shaft simply because she is one small voice competing against the full-throated cheers of Randy’s adoring fans – dwindling though they may be. Randy will do anything to entertain them: Bleach his hair. Bronze his body. Ingest steroids. Risk “bitch tits.” Cut himself with a razor blade. Put his life on the line. If you know anything about professional wrestling, you know that Randy’s bloody match against Necro Butcher isn’t the norm. Getting bashed with a folding chair is one thing. Wrestlers allow staples to be driven into their skin or windows to be shattered over their head only when they are desperate. In Randy’s prime, he wouldn’t have stooped so low. Back then, he didn’t need to. The cheers came easily.
This much we know without ever seeing it. One of the strengths of The Wrestler is the way it conveys Randy’s previous stardom with little overt exposition and without the use of flashbacks. The montage of glowing glory-days headlines that runs during the opening credits lays the foundation, but more effective are the numerous “locker room” scenes in which Randy interacts with other wrestlers. Most of these much-younger men now have more talent than Randy, but they don’t have his fame, and, as they’d say in Bull Durham, they’ve never been to The Show. Randy is a fallen star, but in that context the word star still applies. Randy’s peers of long-shots and no-shots positively adore him. He is for them a mythic figure. Their childlike awe in his presence is painfully sweet. Baseball fans might note how the wrestlers’ reactions to The Ram resemble the memorable scene at the 2002 All-Star Game when Ted Williams was wheeled onto the field and players broke ranks to get up close to the legend.
Likewise, The Wrestler is adept at conveying the depths to which Randy’s career has fallen. There’s the event in which his backstage dressing room is a children’s classroom. There’s the event where his head nearly touches the fluorescent lights of the drab, low-ceilinged venue as he balances on the top rope before his signature “Ram Jam.” There’s the humbling autograph session where the lack of fans walking up to the yesteryear idols isn’t as heart rending as the realization that so many of these battered and bruised wrestlers would be physically incapable of walking up to their fans. Amongst the general public, Randy is as much a relic as the original Nintendo that he leaves hooked up in his trailer so that in pixel form he can keep taking on The Ayatollah as if still in his heyday.
Rourke’s performance of Randy is an instant classic. Amongst films released in 2008, there isn’t a better marriage of actor and character – and that includes Jean-Claude Van Damme’s riveting performance as himself in JCVD. Think about that for a second. Rourke, the former Next Big Thing who left acting to become a not-so-good boxer and then left the public eye entirely, has a lot in common with The Ram. Both men are fighters and entertainers who fell out of the limelight. But Randy needs an audience while Rourke seems uncomfortable with one. Rourke’s pretty boy features long gone and his muscles returned (thanks to steroids, I’d suspect), he is every bit the gladiator, still fighting though he’s over the hill. If Rourke doesn’t do all his stunts in this film, he does most of them – at 56 years old. (Now think about that for a second.) But this role is about more than more than brawn. In Rourke’s eyes we see serenity in the ring and fear out of it. There aren’t many actors who could convince us that a barbed-wire wrestling ring is a sanctuary while a supermarket deli counter is hellhole, but Rourke does it effortlessly and naturalistically.
In an Aronofsky film that last trait is a rare commodity. The director of such films as Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain, Aronofsky has a visual gift but the subtlety of a rhinoceros. As usual for an Aronofsky picture, some emotions come about too quickly in The Wrestler, as if determined to remain cliché, particularly in the relationship between Randy and Stephanie. But Rourke and Wood are gifted enough to make it a non-issue. Meanwhile, Tomei takes an underwritten role and gives it oomph. Rather than underplay the Cassidy persona in order to foreshadow the unveiling of Pam the single mom, Tomei fearlessly honors Cassidy’s professionalism. As a result, Randy isn’t the only mark who looks at Cassidy’s naked figure and tattooed skin and buys into the illusion. We do too.
(Mild spoilers ahead) Whether Pam’s film-capping effort to save Randy is genuine, false or just another moment when Aronofsky impatiently throws character development into a microwave, I’m not sure. What I know is that the conclusion of The Wrestler is otherwise perfect. As Randy wheezes and grunts through his throwback exhibition with The Ayatollah – in what will either be his last match or the first of several ill-advised life-threatening potential last matches – our emotions are mixed. Do we cheer the bravery of a man who refuses to quit living the life he loves? Or do we cry for his cowardice, for his inability to let Randy retire so that Robin might live? Aronofsky leaves it open, but I lean toward the latter. Perhaps even more effectively than in Requiem, Aronofsky shows the cost of addiction. Randy’s drug of choice is public adulation. He’ll seek the cheers until it kills him. The Wrestler might be the first sports movie where winning means losing.