Sacha Howells April 15, 2009
Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a former lion of the ring reduced to wrestling in New Jersey rec centers. The crowds are in the tens instead of the thousands, and the paychecks don’t cover the rent on his mobile home, but he loves what he does and still holds onto the dream, decades past his biggest triumph. He may be aging and broken, but he still has hope — that he’ll get another shot at the big show, that he’ll reconnect with his daughter, that he’ll connect with someone.
Randy has his eye on Cassidy, a small-town stripper who’s looking at the wrong side of thirty herself. They both live in a world of assumed identities, lives spent entertaining the crowd without letting it get too close. But Randy loves it, can’t stand to hear the name “Robin Ramzinski,” while Cassidy — Pam — guards her real identity like a secret.
At first the Ram seems like his stage persona — all surface. We have a hard time getting past the gruff, glad-handing façade until he and Pam start warming to each other and the Ram’s inner self starts to show through; it’s an amazing reveal. But just as things seem to be going well Randy hits the locker room floor after a particularly brutal match, taken down by a heart attack. When he wakes the doctor gives him the worst news there is: He can’t wrestle any more.
The portrait of a man told he can’t do what he loves is wrenching, and watching him make a wreck of his life is hard to take. But when he decides to go back for one last shot, the twentieth anniversary rematch of his fight against “The Ayatollah” (now an Arizona car dealer), you can see why he’d weigh the risk to his life against one more triumph.
It’s in some ways a small film, following a minor character whose dreams aren’t that big, which is maybe what makes it so devastating. Director Darren Aronofsky matches the cinematography to his subject, shooting the entire film handheld, so the camera jogs along behind the Ram as he makes his grand entrance into the ring, and as he steps into work behind a supermarket deli counter.
But it’s the acting that steals the show, particularly Mickey Rourke as the Ram, who won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar. It’s the role that brought Rourke back from the dead, and he earns it, staying onscreen for pretty much the whole 111 minutes and taking a serious beating. It’s like watching penance for all the years of bad behavior. It was a harder movie to get made because of Rourke, and his reputation meant they had to do it with less money, but I don’t see how it could have been done with anyone else.
His croaky voice and buffed up body, his generosity with the other wrestlers and his gentleness with the neighborhood kids — it’s a great performance. And that face, wrecked beyond recognition. At first Aronofsky uses it sparingly, following Randy around from behind; he knows how powerful a sight it is. Even though it’s Rourke’s movie, he leaves room for Marisa Tomei, who’s very good as Cassidy, the stripper who plays ditzy in the club but has a real plan, and Evan Rachel Wood as the daughter willing to give him one, and only one, last chance.
The DVD extras are meager, just a 40-minute behind-the-scenes documentary and the video for Bruce Springsteen’s theme song. More would have been welcome, particularly some input from Rourke. Hearing from Aronofsky and the writer is interesting enough, but Rourke is the movie, and his absence makes it feel empty after the film. No deleted scenes either, and there must have been some good moments that didn’t make the final cut.
The Wrestler is an engaging portrait of a very flawed hero set in a tiny, insular subculture that most of us don’t know. Watch it for the performances, and that final moment of near greatness. And while the DVD features don’t offer much, the movie stands just fine alone.
Categories: No CategoriesTags: Darren aronofsky, Marisa tomei, Mickey rourke, The wrestler