The Wrestler

The Nominations:

  • Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
  • Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

The Black-and-White:

A contributed review by CB450SC.

Here’s the synopsis from oscar.com:

Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a down-on-his-luck professional wrestler who has little in his life beyond his interaction with his fellow competitors and his occasional visits with Cassidy, a stripper at a local club. A serious injury in the ring, however, leaves Randy shaken…and determined to change the lonely course his life has taken.

Let’s begin with the statement that this is a difficult, challenging film to watch. The sense of profound unease, disgust, or despair the viewer is left with is testament to its quality – if it were poorly made, you wouldn’t care. The film is not really passive entertainment, as the aggressiveness of the wrestling bouts are reflected in the aggressiveness of the film towards the viewer.

Spoilers ahead!

The underlying story is fairly simple. Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a professional wrestler 20 years past his prime. Once a huge star (think Hulk Hogan at his mid-80’s peak), he is now reduced to living in poverty in a trailer for which he can barely afford to pay the rent. He works a series of small-time wrestling matches in VA halls and high school gyms in nowhere towns (one fight occurs in Utica, my hometown, and that is as bad as it gets). He also signs autographs for money with other washed-up stars. Randy has no family, but it is revealed over the course of the film that he once did, but abandoned them. He now fills that void with with a stripper, Cassidy (Marissa Tomei) and playing with neighborhood kids. Randy suffers a heart attack, and is told he can never wrestle again. He in fact tries to turn his life around, getting a “normal” job at a supermarket, attempting (and eventually succeeding) in establishing a relationship with Cassidy, and reconnecting with his estranged daughter (Rachel Evans). Then, in a series of events Randy spirals inexorably into self-destruction, culminating in a final wrestling match wherein Randy loses himself entirely (and perhaps literally).

The movie has many interlocking themes, interwoven with the actual actors themselves. I think it is a testament to the medium that the movie can present them in a coherent fashion, whereas trying to compartmentalize them on paper fails so completely (although perhaps that is mostly a failing of this writer).

The first and most obvious is the nature of stagecraft, which the movie makes through multiply reflected degrees of self-reference. Almost everyone knows that professional wrestling is scripted, and Randy is in fact an actor, albeit a highly physical one. The movie offers an extremely interesting inside look at this, portraying the out-of-the ring camaraderie between the “opponents”, their discussions of which moves to use, and even tricks such as concealing razors to self-inflict injuries. A particularly touching scene occurs at the end as the Ram fights his old friend “The Ayatollah”, and between rounds of violent beatings the latter, realizing something is horribly wrong, begs his friend to end the fight. The movie makes the point that while “scripted” the bouts are not “fake” in the sense that real injuries and real pain are inflicted, and in one scene are so brutal it is almost impossible to watch (it pushes the boundaries of getting an X-rating for violence). In the movie, Randy, the “fake” washed-up wrestler who is really an actor, is portrayed by a washed-up actor also was once a boxer. The film challenges us to ask where the actor ends and the role begins. No answers are forthcoming, and the viewer is left to wrestle (ha-ha) with this question themselves.

This same point is paralleled and further driven home in the character of the stripper, Cassidy. She offers a fantasy of desire to her customers, just as Randy offers a fantasy of violence to his. And similarly, Cassidy is clearly only an actor as even her name is revealed in the film to be a stage name, and she is in turn portrayed by another actor (Tomei). The movie pulls no punches in revealing the seedy underbelly of both their businesses, showing us that essentially both are prostitutes (and until recent times actors actually were considered prostitutes). Pathetically, Randy is both drawn to her as a kindred spirit yet unable to clearly see that she is herself an illusion.

Both of these reinforce what I think is the central theme of the movie, which is whether there exists for anyone a “real” them, and that who anyone “really is” depends on their perception by others. To the crowd, Randy is “The Ram”, an embodiment of violence and channel for catharsis. To his fellow wrestlers, he is “Randy” the caring, well-respected and well-liked elder of their profession. To Cassidy he is (at first) a mark. The daughter clearly establishes Randy as a father who has done terrible things, and yet also some good things. His boss at the supermarket establishes that in fact he isn’t even “Randy Robinson” at all, that being a stage name. Randy is neither good nor evil, sympathetic nor despicable. It is impossible for Randy to reconcile all these personas at once. When his encroaching mortality threatens to kill “The Ram” work persona, he attempts to abandon it for another ( a deli clerk and family man). But Randy can’t separate himself from “The Ram” – he is still recognized wherever he goes, and too much of himself and his need for respect are tied the wrestler. An unfortunate chain of stupid yet plausible events causes Randy to return to the wrestling persona he feels he can’t escape, and certain and inevitable death.

Finally, the film also makes abundant use of Christ imagery. Cassidy explicitly points out that his wrestling wounds (and mullet!) remind her of the film “The Passion of the Christ”. At one point during a long interchange between Randy and Cassidy we see him framed against a building which says in Spanish “Jesus is the Man”. Like the Jesus portrayed in “Superstar”, Randy finds himself trapped by the crowd and their demands for his sacrifice (in the form of continuously escalating violence). Throughout the film he acquires the stigmata: the bleeding from the razor-inflicted head wound (the crown of thorns), and the staples (nails) driven into his body. The end remains a conundrum. Both I and at least one other viewer are convinced that Randy dies at the end, with the final cut to black reminiscent of the recent ending of the Sopranos. With the underlying Christ parallels it is easy to imagine that in the end Randy, unable to live any other way, chooses death and with it immortality as he delivers to his fans his ultimate performance. Normally I find Christ imagery highly pretentious, as it is usually a vehicle to cheaply ennoble the character. Here I find it works, primarily in that it reminds us of the other interpretation of the story of Jesus, of a man nearly powerless against the expectations of others (again, a la “Superstar”).

Overall, a highly resonant movie with a once-in-a-lifetime character performance by Mickey Rourke. This is the kind of small-movie role done by a has-been star where the desperation of the latter shows through like a drowning man’s last grasp for the rope that might save him. There’s a brutal honesty to it that isn’t really matched by “big” stars executing “important” roles (yes, that’s you, Mr. Penn).

I think Marissa Tomei, while turning in a yeoman’s job, could easily have been played by any of a number of other actresses. Again, as a more or less now-forgotten star there is a personal resonance there for her, but her part is much smaller here, which would be why she’s the supporting actress despite being the female lead.

P.S. The autograph scenes happen in real life – every month you can come to the scifi swap meet at the Shrine auditorium and see Herb Jefferson, “Boomer” from the original “Battlestar Galactica”, sit sadly at his booth waiting for anyone to remember he ever existed.

P.P.S. – I also can’t help but notice the obvious similarity between Randy and Dog the Bounty Hunter! We always thought the latter looked like a WWF reject!

Mickey Rourke (left), Duane Chapman (Dog, right)

Mickey Rourke (left), Duane Chapman (Dog, right)

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One Response to The Wrestler

  1. […] New review for “The Wrestler” (thank you, […]

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