The Wrestler, a classic tale of an underdog’s life, is an intimate and bittersweet portrayal of the simple joys and tribulations of human existence and the desperate attempts at survival by a man of flesh and blood. The movie is a glowing elucidation of Darren Aronofsky’s storytelling skills. However it is perhaps more a Mickey Rourke vehicle than an Aronofsky one – he’s that good in his portrayal of a once-famous but now has-been professional wrestler. The movie also boasts of a terrific Oscar-worthy original score by Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen.
Anyone who follows current American cinema in general, and movie by those operating outside the formulaic blockbusters churned out by the studio system in particular, would know of Darren Aronofsky. The three movies he directed prior to The Wrestler were not just arthouse but also way out-of-the-box stuffs capable of attracting and repelling viewers in equal measures. He debut film Pi, though praised in film festivals, was too cryptic and experimental to my liking; his sophomore venture Requiem for a Dream was a brilliant and deeply disturbing movie that elevated Aronofsky to stratospheric heights and made producers scurry for the new bloke in town; his much awaited follow-up to that, Fountain, though, according to critics (can not give my personal opinion there as I haven’t yet watched the movie), was a grand failure. So, given the sinusoidal nature of his works and the fact that I was an avid follower of WWE as a kid, I was expecting something spectacular and intimate. I wasn’t disappointed on either count.
If you were expecting a movie commensurate with the kind of movies the maverick filmmaker has come to be associated with, you would be in for a surprise, albeit a pleasant one. The Wrestler is, arguably, the most mainstream of his movies – a movie that wouldn’t be difficult to follow for even a casual filmgoer. Leave alone doing away with experimental techniques and complex narratives, the movie is an embodiment of simplicity – the classic tale of an underdog’s life is as straightforward and predictable as it gets. The greatest aspect about the movie lies in its intimate and bittersweet portrayal of the simple joys and tribulations of human existence and the desperate attempts at survival by a man of flesh and blood. The Wrestler, thus, is a glowing elucidation of the talented auteur’s storytelling skills. And for those left perplexed at the rare display of solidarity shown by critics and average movie goers in touting this as Micky Rourke’s comeback movie, let me do the formalities by stating that this is perhaps more a Rourke vehicle than an Aronofsky one – he’s that good.
The movie is about a once-famous but now has-been professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, played by Rourke. Twenty years back Randy was the biggest superstar in professional wrestling with videogames and merchandise of collector’s value sold as by-products of his fame. But, just like the Nintendo games he loves playing, he is no more than a relic of his former self. Living in a shabby trawler, desperately struggling to meet his ends, physically battered and bruised through years of substance abuse to maintain his physique and due to all the crushing blows and injuries sustained in the rings, displaying his gravity-defying antics in local gymnasiums and arenas too small to accommodate his iconic stature among old-timers (imagine Hulk Hogan wrestling at your community club to pay his bills!), making futile bids to get to talking terms with his estranged daughter, in a one-sided relationship with a stripper/single mother, trying to nurse his health back to normalcy following a life-threatening heart attack, begging and pleading for a job in a local store that he finds way below his dignity, making a few extra bucks by signing autographs for his fans along with a few wheel-chair bound and partially paralyzed fellow old-timers – his life is as defeated and his sense of being as faded as is possible. This is thus an exceedingly melancholic, and, lets face it, recipe to induce tears. Yet what saves the movie from going down the drains as a pathetic and banal tearjerker – I’ll say this even at the risk of earning the readers’ wrath for repeating myself – is the searing honesty and heart-warming intimacy of the portrayal. Let me say something very clichéd here; at the hands of a lesser director the movie would have, to put it bluntly, sucked. Hence, despite not boasting of in-your-face kind of bravura filmmaking of Requiem for a Dream, this movie could be placed on the same pedestal for the simple reason that Aronfsky had the belief and the ability to present something made numerous times before and yet appear refreshingly original.
For an intimate character study like this, the end result depends, to a very large extent, on the performances of the actors, and suffice it to say, they are first rate. Anything that I say about Mickey Rourke’s acting has, I’m sure, been said over and over again by critics around the globe. The first and most important thing that he has brought into the role is his physicality. With that hulking gait and the slothful walks that get instantly transformed into sprightly steps when near the wrestling ring, Rourke looks as convincing as perhaps humanly possible. But he is more than his imposing presence. His perpetual frown, sad smiles and occasional bursts of exuberance have presented a devastatingly real person, and would infuse even the most light-hearted of viewers with a sense of sorrow and warmth. Randy’s lumbering survival outside the rings, thus, forms a striking and painful contrast to his alter ego Ram’s larger than life persona inside them. Hence the entrance of the counter of a store for a job that he has taken out of sheer necessity, makes him feel (to help swallow the bitter pills of taking the job) as if he’s on his way to a spectacular bout.
While Rourke deserves all the superlatives that he has been bestowed upon, it would be a crime to overlook another great performance – that of Marisa Tomei. She might be on the wrong side of 40, but she has the body of a 20 year old, and she has been gracious enough to show us everything that’s there to see, in this movie as well as in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Sydney Lumet’s brilliant study of dysfunctional family and modern day dystopia. But Tomei is also testimony of the fact that she is far more than the sum of her eminently watchable parts. Her role of a single mum striving for a survival by making use of her bare body forms a fine juxtaposition to that of Randy’s – only she isn’t in love with her job. Her fake smiles for her “customers” contrast with her desperation to hide from the lecherous world ogling at her from close range. The best parts of the movie, in fact, are during her interactions with Randy. In one particularly memorable scene, she is giving Randy a lap dance while he is talking about a rematch with his former arch-rival that he is extremely excited about. This scene managed to aptly bring forth the wonderful comfort level shared by these two deeply lonely characters.
The Wrestler is, without doubt, a downbeat movie. But it also has its fair share of hope and touching moments. The fight sequences are brutal, but somewhere down the line, the characters’ lives are more so. And this palpable realness has been given an even more tangible feel by the grim and completely deglamorized cinematography. And so quite aptly, the most astounding moment of the movie is the final scene where a magnificent low-angle shot has been used to capture Randy in the superhuman glory of his former self, taking a dangerous jump in complete abandon to his failing health and the cruel outside world. What happens to Randy after that presumably fateful jump is anybody’s guess. But as soon as that is followed by the credits along with a truly terrific Oscar-worthy original score by Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen, one is bound to feel strangely happy for having viewed a poignant, unpretentious and meditative movie suffused with humanism and pathos, and a couple of powerful, heartfelt performances that have brought forth the tragic and finely layered characters.