The Wrestler (2008) Review
The Wrestler was directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Whale, Black Swan), written by Robert Siegel (Pam & Tommy, The Onion Movie), and stars Mickey Rourke (WarHunt, Section 8), Marisa Tomei (The Big Short, Anger Management), Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld, Down in the Valley), Todd Barry (Pete Smalls is Dead, Pootie Tang), Ernest Miller (Blood and Bone, The Replaceables), and Mark Margolis (Better Call Saul, Far from Poland). It’s about a past prime wrestler whose attempts to rebound into the public eye conflict with his private life, forcing him to make a series of decisions that will affect the rest of his life.
The Plot: Everyone loves a good comeback story, and that includes screenwriter Siegel, who stages most of the pieces with incredible quality. The Wrestler utilizes a lot of old tricks, but the legitimacy it offers outdoes an occasional contrivance or questionable decision.
20 Years after a match that cost him his spot in the limelight, Robin AKA Randy “the Ram” (Rourke) has reached his lowest point when he’s locked out of his trailer home by Lenny (Margolis) for his inability to cough up the rent. Unless one cites the opening credits, Aronofsky and Siegel don’t do much storytelling in the traditional “exposit details, set up a grand narrative” sense.
Less is more in The Wrestler, which observes Randy’s struggles with working under store manager Wayne (Barry) and ease of personability with stripper Pam AKA Cassidy (Tomei) – an approach that benefits the feature immensely until it settles into a groove – which is found when Randy ventures into the ring and has a heart attack.
Said groove isn’t found organically, as Aronofsky threatens the audience with inference, only to backtrack and show the moment in an inopportune way. With the anniversary of the pivotal fight with “the Ayatollah” (Miller) closing in, Randy is offered a chance of a rematch that could revitalize his career, but with health risks in abundance, the wash-up needs to make sure his options are weighed; attempting to reconnect with estranged daughter Stephanie (Wood) before making his choice.
That’s your story; about as simple as it gets, but the gravitas that Aronofsky presents to the highs and wallowing to the lows, along with a gradual creep of necessary decision-making, give The Wrestler’s plot the pull it necessitates to be investing. Although there are a couple of forced moments, Siegel’s sporting saga is a strong one.
The Characters: Separating itself from sports pictures that worship the champs, The Wrestler decides to focus on characters who – while not without notoriety – scrape the bottom of the barrel, and, like an unexpected cash prize in a pant pocket, are surprisingly spectacular.
Randy (or Robin, depending on who you ask) never quite had it all back in his heyday, but he had an audience and adoration, which was good enough for him for a time, even if it cost him his family life. After his fame faded, Randy never moved onto a new stage, citing an exceptional level of showmanship and pain tolerance and the inability to do much else. While Aronofsky doesn’t show much of the latter, there’s plenty of the former.
With the tail end of middle age around the corner and no one permanently in his life, he does attempt to reach for a partner in Pam, and customers at his job. It’s the dialogue that never overreaches and the refusal to make the man into a myth (he can be a touch manipulative) which do this rich character so much justice.
Pam (or Cassidy, depending on who you ask) isn’t a ready-made romance for the Ram, though she shares a lot of similarities. Like Randy’s injuries have taken a toll on him, age has taken its toll on her. She still looks and dances well, but the novelty has waned; a fact she’s well aware of, since it cuts into her provisions for her son.
It’s how Pam deals with her crisis that sets her apart: the lady avoids opening up, presumably waiting for a lover’s return, whereas Randy makes it clear that change is necessary. Because of Tomei’s acting, the guard she puts up never feels like a shield for the screenplay, only a personality trait.
Stephanie (or Stephanie, depending on who you ask) gets a relatively equal level of characterization, but most of it comes from visual storytelling instead of the full method. In Randy’s pictures, the young girl is only seen either by herself or with Randy – but only to the age of (by my guess) ten. Even when she’s on-screen, there’s not much to her, but Siegel was wise to give her lines about other life events, giving the illusion of a life outside of the scenes she shares with her father.
Frankly, the characters of The Wrestler don’t feel much like characters; they’re more real than that, or at least the script makes it seem the case. Anchored by terrific acting from Tomei and Wood, along with a career-best showing from Rourke (it’s hard to call this a performance since the man bears so many similarities with the titular character), Aronofsky offers another legitimate roster.
The Drama: Tentatively, the movie is supposed to centre around an entertainment medium and a man who participates in it, which The Wrestler certainly does, however, the movie tells a tale that incorporates the profession instead of focusing on it. That decision gave Siegel a much wider range of play, and the movie works all the better for it.
First and foremost, The Wrestler is about Randy’s efforts to repair his relationships that have come undone over the course of 20-odd years. Largely a success, the best facet of this drama comes from Randy’s attempts to find a partner in Pam. The movie teases a romance a few times, but it never dangles over the heads of the pair, since there are plenty of moments where they simply discuss their situations and their options. Some advice is taken and some isn’t, and occasional bursts of humour keep the authentic attitudes steady.
What interpersonal woes don’t fit together as perfectly as the Randy/Pam arc largely come from the sequences where Randy tries to reconcile with Stephanie, which somehow manages to work very well while still feeling rushed. Each scene works on its own and comes across with real feeling, but having a scene where Randy attempts to talk to his daughter go south, only for a short trip to a pier to fix things results in this aspect not having the same time to breathe as the other.
Wrestling drama is promised by Aronofsky, and wrestling drama is delivered. Only a handful of scenes are devoted to watching Randy in the ring, but all of them land with ill-tempered impact. As Randy is forced to escalate to “hardcore matches” which involve more violence than expected, his weariness grows and condition weakens, which Aronofsky never lets the audience forget thanks to a hearing aid, reading glasses, and plenty of dings omnipresent on the main character, the punchiness, and severity of a profession that gets scrapped often. Wounds are never exploited, making each one an asset to the picture.
At times, it struggles with its paternal instincts, but The Wrestler is otherwise a complete smash when it comes to human impact. Never has a “fake” source of entertainment felt so real.
The Technics: Having gotten started with ambitious indie pictures, Aronofsky knows how to navigate budgetary limitations and deliver stirring visuals across the runtime. Unfortunately, his usual daringness, which may have helped The Wrestler with some stumbles, is largely absent.
Authenticity is superbly maintained throughout the runtime. From the use of actual pro wrestlers as minor characters (who are more human than their personas will allow, as shown here) to the admission that while the events may be staged, the lengths required to make them feel real (steroids, secret wrist cutting, and painkillers) are far from fake.
Camerawork and locations often go hand in hand in Aronofsky’s movies, and The Wrestler matches the track record. Maryse Alberti’s (Jerry and Marge Go Large, A Journal for Jordan) documentary shooting style ebbs and flows just like the character he tracks, with plenty of strong angles but (deliberately) imperfect stability, the cinematographer captures the uncertainty and grit of the film’s story.
Because the director is a native of New York, he knows where to go for picturesque moments, but the team behind the location scouting for the various low-rent (and occasionally moderately impressive) buildings deserve credit for maintaining the mood of the feature.
Siegel’s sparse script does at points become a problem since some connective tissue between scenes feels absent, as characters mention dates and times (notably the rematch with “the Ayatollah” which isn’t clarified at all) only for The Wrestler to lose track of time, making the countdown to Randy’s decision fuzzy. And if I’m being honest, I simply wanted more time with Rourke.
It’s not quite the sum of all its parts, but The Wrestler is one of the most earnest dramas to come from a major director in a long time, and the feature is all about that honesty; especially from Rourke, who embodies a role and a movie that will be remembered as his moment of pain and glory.