“I don’t hear as good as I used to, and I ain’t as pretty as I used to be”
Why am I reviewing an old film like ‘The Wrestler?’ Because it is WrestleMania 32 week! A poor link, I know, but hey ho…go with the flow! ‘The Wrestler’ was critically acclaimed when it appeared in the cinemas, especially for Mickey Rourke’s performance as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson. He’s ‘a broken down piece of meat’, in his own words. He’s the typical has-been who wants one last shot at glory. A major reason for this acclaim was the niche (and much-maligned) subject of wrestling.
Yes, the film ‘humanized’ the absurd world of wrestling, where everything’s predetermined. Wrestling, to the masses, is a ‘fake’ sport. Even the film depicts this disdain for wrestling, in the form of Randy’s shop manager (yes, Randy has now been reduced to working at a shop due to the poor wages of infrequent, low-grade wrestling). When Randy asks for more work at the weekends, his response is ‘Did the price for tights go up?’ Randy’s love interest (and handy parallel) Cassidy sees Randy bleeding, and says ‘I thought wrestling was fake!’ Randy then goes through all of the very real injuries he’s sustained during his wrestling tenure. This disdain for the fakery of wrestling escapes me. Of course it’s fake. It is sports ENTERTAINMENT. Suspension of disbelief is a necessity.
The supposed ‘fakery’ in the film is emphasised by the ‘freaks’ that are the wrestlers. Every wrestler you see has piercings galore, tattoos all over the skin, take steroids and painkillers, and drink to excess. Their ‘wrestling personality’ overcomes their normal personality with physical absurdity. And it’s evident in Randy. He’s unnaturally muscle-bound for a guy over 50 (thanks to physique-enhancing drugs). Tattoos adornhis body, he dyes his hair platinum blond. Look at that bruised and disfigured face. In all human interactions (apart from those with Cassidy and his estranged daughter), he’s distant, uninterested, unemotional. It’s wrestling that brings him to life (and close to death in a brutal ‘hardcore’ match). Yes, it’s ultra-violent and obscene, but it’s necessary in the scheme of the film to show that sometimes, wrestling is ‘real.’ Randy’s stabbed with a fork, attacked with a staple gun and thrown into thumbtacks, among other atrocities.
In this life, you can lose everything you love, everything that loves you.
Some reviews have likened the story to ‘The Passion of the Christ’, and this is explicitly referenced by Cassidy, who compares Randy’s injuries to Christ’s Passion. She comes out with a humorous pun, calling him the ‘sacrificial Ram.’ I find Job a more appropriate allegory (incidentally, there is close-up of Randy finger, with a tattoo of the name ‘Job’). But instead of his faith in God being tested, Randy’s faith in wrestling is continually tested. Like Job, Randy once had it all. The beginning shows a series of posters highlighting Randy as the main man in wrestling during the 1980s. He had money, fame, and a family. But now, he has literally nothing. The first scene after the series of posters focuses on Randy’s back, and all you can hear is his wheezing. His health is very poor and he can barely walk outside of the wrestling ring. He can’t even afford to live in a trailer park due to his meagre income. There is only one place that Randy lives: the past.
His daughter is a painful reminder of the present, as is Cassidy. She’s a stripper, using the stage name of Cassidy instead of her real name, Pam. Pam, unlike Randy, has definite plans for the future. Her life as a stripper is inadequate. She’s connected to the present through her son. Randy, on the other hand, has nothing in the present. After the brutal hardcore match, he has a heart attack. This initially puts him off wrestling, and his future is vividly depicted at the ‘Legends of Wrestling’ convention, where his one-time opponents are either nodding off, in wheelchairs, stuck with catheter bags, or looking close to death. Even during his recuperation period, he plays ‘WrestleJam’ on the NES (as himself). And, of course, he can only find love in wrestling. He has to go back, for one final match, even if it kills him.
And a true American, the people’s hero… Randy “The Ram” Robinson!
There is something of the ‘rise and fall’ of the USA in the film as well.. Randy has the American flag hung up in his trailer. In many of the wrestling scenes, the American flag can be seen hung up. The American flag graces Randy’s entrance. Before the last match, the crowd are heard chanting ‘USA! USA!’ And the major ‘villain’ for Randy in the 1980s, and the major ‘villain’ for Randy now, is the Iranian ‘The Ayatollah.’ He enters the ring, parading the Iranian flag in a vainglorious manner. The world of wrestling in the 1980s was often divided in explicitly black and white terms. The bad guy was distinctly bad, and the good guy was distinctly good (think of Hulk Hogan-a ‘Real American’, a real good guy, and someone like The Iron Shiek, a mad Iranian, a real bad guy). In a sense, this is how the USA wants the world to be: black and white, good guys and bad guys. The USA desperately wants those days back, instead of these days where terrorism is not simply one state or thing; it’s a multitude of tribes, essentially without a state.
It’s strange that one of only references to the 1990s in the film is the line by Randy of ’90s sucked,’ in agreement with Cassidy. The visual America as depicted in the film is definitely not a ‘nice place to live in.’ It’s almost a wasteland. Like Randy, America is seen as a ‘broken down piece of meat’. When Randy takes his daughter back to a fairground (a place of memories for Randy) it is rundown. Like Randy, USA’s heyday was the 1980s. Constant competition with the Soviets, Reganomics that brought undreamed of prosperity to the USA, and the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall gave the USA a grand future. But the demeaning references to the 1990s also recognise how forgettable the 1990s were, in terms of hopes and dreams. And in the present day world of The Ram, there are no visible signs of prosperity. Even Randy’s bosses, in the ring and in the supermarket, are poor. The glitz and glamour have given way to a depressing, crushing reality. The only way to feel alive is to relive the 1980s. The excesses of the 1980s nearly kill Randy, as the excesses of capitalism in the 1980s gave the USA a massive heart attack in 2007 with the credit crunch. However, America still ploughs on, expecting capitalism to recover from the massive heart attack. And, like Randy, it will plough on until the next, and possibly final, heart attack.
The Wrestler is radically different from Darren Aronofsky’s previous films. It has a conventional narrative arc. And there are the conventional narrative constructs: the estranged daughter, the new love interest, the incident that makes him question whether he should continue on this destructive course. Essentially, it’s a grittier version of Rocky Balboa. But that does not do the film justice. Who didn’t have a tear in their eye when Randy has his ‘broken down piece of meat’ speech to his daughter? The script is top-notch, all the performances excel, and the direction draws you in to the film. It could have been a sickly sweet splurge of sentiments, but Rourke colours the script with a pared-down, honest, truthful performance. It’s a story well-tread, but Aronofsky and Rourke tread it very, very well.
VERDICT: 9/10. Watch it, right now! The best film about wrestling ever made.
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