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Review: The Wrestler (2008)

The Wrestler (2008) 

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Premise: Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is a semi-retired professional wrestler who has been reduced to performing on weekends in high school gymnasiums. After a heart attack, Randy has to quit wrestling and attempts to patch up his relationship with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) while attempting to initiate a romance with an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei). 

What Works: Among American directors there are lots of filmmakers but few who can be called cinematic artists. With Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and now The Wrestler, director Darren Aronofsky has proven himself to be one of the most original and truly visionary directors working in American cinema today. The Wrestler is distinctly different from his other work; it is shot very low tech without the gloss or formalism of so much of his other work and yet the film demonstrates Aronofsky’s willingness to push boundaries and show the audience things they have not seen in mainstream film. The Wrestler does this in a number of ways but most impressive is its willingness to break the viewer’s heart. The picture sets up character relationships that, in a typical Hollywood product, would rescue Randy from himself and wrap up the picture with a neat ending and a feel-good-bow on top. The Wrestler refuses to do that; this film has more respect for its main character and for the audience than to sell out at the last minute. What the film leaves the audience with is a character study unlike anything since Raging Bull. Like Scorsese’s film, the picture portrays the violence in the ring as savage but The Wrestler also makes it quite clear that this is theater and Randy and his companions are muscled-out thespians playacting for the crowd. In this, The Wrestler finds a great deal of humor and compassion as these men beat each other to pieces in the ring and then nurse each other’s wounds backstage. The key to The Wrestler is Mickey Rourke as Randy. Rourke has the physical qualities for the role but he also contributes humor and fallibility that bring the character down from the mythic level and make him a likable and vulnerable man. Randy’s misguided attempts at reconnecting with his daughter have an awkwardness about the scenes that betray the man’s indestructible facade and make him look weak and pitiable. It’s in these scenes that Rourke really shines as an actor, and his character’s failure at everything but entertaining the crowd culminates in a finale that is as emotionally devastating as the beating he takes in the ring.  

What Doesn’t: The ending is very sudden. While the film wraps up what it has to say about Randy the Ram, it’s also a jarring conclusion. Also, the film’s lack of a Hollywood ending might upset some viewers who feel betrayed after cheering for this man for the previous two hours. 

Bottom Line: The Wrestler is a terrific film and a brilliant character study of a man really at the end of his rope. Like it’s main character, the picture is savage in the ring but sensitive outside of it, culminating in a film that captures the humanity of a man who has lost everything but his dignity.

Episode: #224 (January 25, 2009)