The film: The Wrestler (2008)
The Principals: Mickey Rourke (Randy “The Ram” Robinson), Marisa Tomei (Cassidy), Evan Rachel Wood (Stephanie), Todd Barry (Wayne). Directed by Darren Aronofsky
The Premise: Robin Ramzinski is a professional wrestler who made a name for himself as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in the 1980s. Once considered one of the best and biggest names in the business, Randy now finds himself in the twilight of his career working small venues in New Jersey while trying to make ends meet working in the stock room of a grocery store. The decades of self-abuse in the service of his performance art have taken their toll – leaving him worn down, battered, vulnerable… human. Still, the call of the crowd plus the energy and attention he gets from his fans are what keep him climbing back into the ring, match after match… well past his shelf life.
This point is driven home when one particularly brutal match proves to be too physically stressful for The Ram. After the locker room docs finish pulling out glass, gluing up severe gashes and otherwise tending to Randy’s heavily wounded body, The Ram suffers a heart attack while packing up for the evening alone. Randy wakes up in the hospital to discover that surgeons had to perform coronary artery bypass surgery on him due to the damage caused by years of physical abuse and drug use. The doctor informs him that he almost died and that he can no longer perform as a professional wrestler.
This becomes a wake-up call for Randy. Though he’s initially resistant to quitting the only life he knows, Randy eventually puts forth a noble effort to leave pro-wrestling behind and integrate himself into a world he doesn’t understand or feel like he belongs to. He starts by canceling his upcoming matches – including the twentieth anniversary match he had originally planned to do against his most notable opponent – The Ayatollah. He then transfers from working the back room part-time to working the deli counter full-time at the supermarket that’s been giving him work in order to make a full living. At the same time, Randy starts to make a serious play for the affections of a local stripper named Cassidy that he is frequently a customer of. She too is dealing with the reality of being past her prime in a vocation for the young. Initially, she spurns his advances, but his persistence pays off and eventually the two start spending more time together in a not solicitor/customer capacity. Soon after, on Cassidy’s suggestion, Randy succeeds in reconnecting with Stephanie – the estranged daughter he practically abandoned for his career. Life outside of the ring is actually starting to look good for The ex-Ram.
Unfortunately, Randy’s new life begins its fall to the mat when it receives a clothesline to the face. Despite how close Randy and Cassidy have gotten, Cassidy’s fear of rejection due to having a son, as well as her fear of getting involved with a customer force her to turn Randy away. This, in turn, begins the downward spiral for Robinson as everything he has been building in his post-wrestling life starts to unravel. Because of Cassidy’s rejection, “The Ram” immediately heads out to a local match to drown himself in the world that has always been his true home. This leads to a long, rough night of booze, drugs, and random sex. Waking up in a stranger’s bed the next morning, Randy heads home where he passes out for several hours – well into the night and causing him to miss a dinner date with the daughter who was starting to bond with him. Waking up to realize this, Randy frantically makes his way over to Stephanie’s house, begging for an apology… only to have a tearful Stephanie tell him she wants nothing to do with him ever again.
Feeling devastated and alone, Randy goes back to his new job at the deli – only to find that it no longer holds the same happiness for him that it did before. When a customer recognizes him, Randy does everything he can to deny it. With the emptiness of feeling nothing now overwhelming him, Randy does the only thing he can think of in order to feel anything – he jams his thumb into the deli slicer. The sudden pain ignites a rage within him and he storms out of the supermarket, quitting for good.
Immediately after, Randy calls his promoter to call the anniversary match back on, even if it no longer pays. He just wants back in to the only world that understands and accepts him. Cassidy, realizing the mistake she made and how much Randy really means to her, begs him not to do the match. His heart won’t be able to take the strain. Her pleas fall on deaf ears. Randy tells her that despite his efforts, he’s a failure at trying to start a normal life and he’s going back to the only place he can call family and the only place he can call home.
Randy climbs back into the ring to face off against his famous adversary – The Ayatollah. Halfway into the match, it’s clear that the exertion is starting to have an adverse effect on his heart. But the roar of the crowd and the energy created by it keep him going despite the strain. As he climbs up onto the railing to deliver his signature move and the final pin, he looks up into the stands. But, Cassidy is no longer there. His heart giving out, but convinced that this is where he belongs, “The Ram” jumps.
Is It Good? This isn’t just a good film. It’s a great film – winning several awards (including Oscar nods for Rourke and Tomei) and garnering universal acclaim. It has a Fresh Rating of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. Ebert called it one of the best films of that year. But even with all those accolades, I think the most significant thing about The Wrestler is that at the end of the day, it’s an important film.
What makes The Wrestler an important film is that it opens our eyes and shines a spotlight on one of the most popular, globally well-known professions in sports entertainment. The glamour, glitz, flash and showmanship – this is merely the “face” of professional wrestling as presented to us on television, Pay-per-view, and ringside. What Aronofsky’s film allows us to do is peek behind that curtain to show us the stark reality that lurks there. The result is a raw, brutal, honest look at the life behind the flash.
Part of what makes the movie work is that it has a rough, documentary feel. It’s like we’re following “The Ram” through his day-to-day at the tail end of his career, documenting the triumphs and the tragedies that befall this broken character as he tries to make what’s left of his life mean something. Make no mistake – this man is kind of a degenerate. He buys large varieties of drugs illegally to help regulate pain and take the edge off. He blows his money on strippers. He has a family he abandoned in pursuit of his career. But he’s a popular degenerate – adored by his fans and loved by his comrades. But by the end of the film, you realize that you can’t really hate the guy – especially after he tries so hard to make things right in his life. That’s because you realize he’s just human. He just wants to belong and be loved like the rest of us. He just made different choices and mistakes along the way then the rest of us might have. And sadly, what his life has become is just as much a victim to bad misfortune as it is a result of his own making.
What really stuck out at me while watching this movie were the parallels to Rocky and Rocky Balboa – Rocky especially. In fact, this film almost serves as the anti-Rocky. Randy deals with a similar theme – his choice between the sport he loves or the girl he loves. This point is especially apparent in the final scene that practically pays direct homage to Stallone’s film. While Randy is in the ring fighting his match, he looks up in the stands for the woman he has grown to love. Only this time – true to the overall tone of The Wrestler – she isn’t there, having left over the pain of seeing Randy possibly kill himself due to pushing his failing heart. It’s an almost subtle nod, but a nod nonetheless that helps make Aronofsky’s film even better.
Mickey Rourke really brings the honesty and realism to this character. In fact, you don’t feel like you’re watching Rourke portray a character at all. This really is the story of Randy “The Ram” Robinson. A lot of that had to do with the fact that Aronofsky often let the folks in front of the camera improvise and ad lib – especially in the locker room scenes as well as the deli counter scenes (with Rourke actually serving real customers). As a result, his portrayal comes across as genuine, and it resonates.
Marisa Tomei is fantastic here as well. She balances the light, flirty behavior of her character’s job as a stripper with the weight she carries of being a single mom past her prime perfectly. Her chemistry with Rourke is great, and she’s able to hold her own against him scene for scene. It’s obvious from performances like this that her Oscar win for My Cousin Vinny was not a fluke.
But like I mentioned before, what really makes The Wrestler a great film is the impact it has. It gives us a better understanding of the business behind the “biz”. It accomplishes this with how it presents the stark reality of wrestlers at the end of their career. One of the moments in the film that really stuck with me was the scene where several ex-wrestlers are set up for a small autograph session in a fire hall. With very few fans showing up for autographs or pictures it reminded me of many of the ex-television and movie stars that I’ve seen at comic and sci-fi conventions over the years – the ones who are trying desperately to squeeze a few more dollars out of what used to be. They would just be sitting there, by themselves, for hours without a single visitor. Forgotten. It helped make seeing this portrayed in the film heartbreaking.
But it isn’t just personal experience that gives the The Wrestler its impact. Aronofsky is able to deliver his powerful message just fine. Case in point – before I saw this movie I had zero interest in pro-wrestling. I was aware of it growing up, as a lot of my friends and their uncles were into it. I was familiar enough to know who some of the major players were in the eighties. I thumb wrestled my best friend with his WWF Thumb Wrestlers every so often. I even watched the occasional episode of Hulk Hogan’s Rock and Wrestling. I saw it all around me, but it was never something I cared about.
One of the things that I remember being told frequently growing up was that “wrestling was fake”. Over the years I’ve made several friends who are connected to the local pro-wrestling circuit. And man, they hate it when you call it fake. Turns out, there’s a big difference between “fake” and “scripted”. What wrestlers do out there in the ring is very real, and the danger of severe injury or death is also very real. The feuds, the backstabbing, the team-ups and the adversaries… that’s scripted. Well, most of it is.
The point I’m trying to make is that even though I would often laugh or shrug off that famous wrestling debate with my friends, once I saw this film I grew a newfound respect and admiration for the performance sport. I still don’t have much of an interest in professional wrestling beyond this movie, but that’s what makes this such an important and incredible film. Though there are disagreements in the wrestling industry over just how accurate and non-sensational The Wrestler is, it’s enlightening, poignant, touching, and makes even a guy who couldn’t care less about muscle-bound beasts running around in spandex learn some respect. Plus, it made “Rowdy” Roddy Piper cry. Movies don’t get better than that.
Is It Worth a Look? Did you not hear me? This movie made the star of They Live go Niagara Falls. The man who went toe-to-toe against Keith David in an alley for over five minutes. If it’s good enough for him, it’s more than good enough for you. Whether you love pro wrestling or not, this movie is eye-opening. It’s a sad tale, but a powerful one. And it deserves to be seen.
Random Anecdotes: During the scene where Randy uses the razor hidden in his wristband to cut his forehead in order to make it look like the head pounding he was receiving was doing real damage (called “gigging”), Mickey Rourke actually cut his forehead to make it look more authentic. Rourke also used his real face for the entirety of the film.
Nicolas Cage was the first actor considered to play the role of Randy “The Ram”, but Aronofsky pushed for Rourke. Cage bowed out a month after talks began. As revenge for losing the role, Cage would punish the world with Knowing the following year.
During Mickey Rourke’s boxing days, he would use the song “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses as his entrance music. Axl Rose lent out the song to The Wrestler for free due to the low budget of the film. Axl Rose would later lend out his self-respect to a back alley hobo, and unfortunately never see it again. And that’s where Chinese Democracies come from.
Cinematic Soulmates: Rocky, Rocky Balboa, Raging Bull, Requiem For a Heavyweight, Fat City, Charly