The Wrestler

Acutely observed, brilliantly acted character study.

Released in 2008, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 12 Feb 2009 by Scott Morris
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Perhaps a challenging subject for cult favourite Darren Aronofsky to pick. The ex-sport turned sport entertainment of Professional Wrestling is hardly one that invokes feelings of overwhelming sympathy for its participants. The poor Lycra clad sweatgrapplers and their struggles are rarely treated with any respect or reverence by the mainstream media. Mickey Rourke, also is rarely treated with respect and reverence, so a combination of the two would seem to be ticking more boxes in the "against" rather than the "for" column. Thankfully there's enough counterbalancing ticks elsewhere to make this more than worthy of your time.

Randy "The Bull" (Rourke) Robinson, something of an amalgam of Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior tasted the highs of championship gold in his prime, although it seems his prime came somewhat before rasslin' transformed the most successful parts of itself into a multi-million dollar money making machine. He now finds his body, if perhaps not his spirit just about ready for the scrapheap after years on the Independent circuit, wrestling for ten buck payoffs in school gymnasiums on dodgy knees and aching bones.

Given how friendly, generous, and devoid of ego he appears to be with the younger guys in the locker room, or whatever classroom is being press-ganged into a locker room that night, it's difficult not to feel sorry for someone who can barely scrape enough money together for the humble trailer he lives in, alone. The closest thing to a friend comes in the form of a girl at the local strip joint, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), for whom Randy is beginning to look for something more than a regular lapdance.

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The other leg in Randy's shaky relationship table comes in the form of estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). The life of continual road trips around the country that Randy's chosen profession entails rather put the kibosh on the father-daughter bond, and now Stephanie has nothing to do with her father. Obviously contrite, a good part of the film concerns him trying to make amends to the best of his ability.

Being almost entirely a character piece, the narrative may perhaps not sound like the most exhilarating experience and for the most part that's true, with glimpses of Randy's character being doled out in relatively sedate order. This is more of a strength than a weakness, allowing a real sense of familiarity with all of the main characters.

The actual wrestling part of The Wrestler is well-observed, both in the ring and backstage, and perhaps gives some insight into why quite so many pro-wrestlers go off the rails in fairly spectacular fashion or wind up shambling wrecks - there is a scene of (fictional) stars of the past selling autographs that is almost harrowing in the careers and lifestyles it implies. I'm sure the intention of the film was never to campaign for more respect to be given to the people who leave their bloodstains in the ring but it stands a good chance of achieving that anyway.

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Like most of Aronofsky's output, it's hardly the most upbeat of experiences, but it's nothing like as wrist-slitting as the excellent Requiem for a Dream. The main tragedy is Randy himself, as someone who, in the nicest possible way, refuses to recognise that his time has passed, that he ought to stop doing the one thing that seems to come most naturally to him, and that 80's hair metal will never make a comeback. Tragic, but perhaps only to those with the calm detachment of not living that life, which, for its ups and downs, Randy seems happy enough with.

It's being called a comeback performance for Mickey Rourke. Personally, I'm not convinced he ever got there in the first place, but he's arrived now. Better late than never, especially with as restrained and delicate a performance of his private life in contrast with the in-ring showboating. It's a credit to the performances, the direction and the writing that the sillier excesses of the Pro Westling Pretendy-Fighting never undermine the struggles of Randy's situation, and by the end of it I'm not entirely sure whether I feel sorry or happy for the way Randy's life has turned out, which makes it a lot more complicated than a great many films taking more serious subject matter as its basis.

Comes highly recommended, and not just because it features a wrestler with the awesome name of Necro Butcher.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 5/5 TippyMarks.

Darren Aronofsky
Cast list:
Mickey Rourke (Randy 'The Ram' Robinson)
Marisa Tomei (Cassidy)
Evan Rachel Wood (Stephanie Robinson)
Mark Margolis (Lenny)