Original US release date: December 17, 2008
Production budget: $6,000,000
Worldwide gross: $44,703,995
I make no secret of being a lifelong wrestling fan. Hulk Hogan was my hero as a kid and Bret Hart was my hero as an adult. I’ve been to two WrestleManias, traveled 850 miles just to meet A.J. Lee, was just last week blocked by Vince Russo on Twitter for challenging his raging misogyny, and sat front row in Pittsburgh on that fateful night when the Undertaker flung Mick Foley off the top of the Cell. I don’t simply watch it, I study it. I learn about it. About what works and why. About the true art of it – and there absolutely is an art to it. That’s something that people who don’t watch it – and even many people who do – don’t realize.
Something that comes along with being a longtime fan is that we often eventually see the heroes we grew up watching become broken shells of themselves. Sometimes on the outside. Sometimes on the inside. Sometimes both. So often, the wrestlers who truly love what they do beat themselves up for decades (“predetermined” is not “fake” for you uninformed out there) and then get pushed to the side and replaced. They’re forgotten by the industry. And many of them know nothing else. They’ve developed no other skills. And if they weren’t good with their money, this can lead to a rough end to a life that was once full of fame and fortune.
Obviously, besides studying wrestling, I also study film and filmmaking. And with The Wrestler, those two interests collide. But they collide in a truly artistic way, not in a silly, impossible-to-take-seriously way like a No Holds Barred or a Ready to Rumble. And when it comes to directors, they don’t come much more artistic than Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan). This particular film gained much praise on its own merits as well as due to the performance of star Mickey Rourke (though many credited this film as being his comeback when that truly occurred a few years prior in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City), although Marisa Tomei got some critical love, as well.
Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a wrestler who hit his prime during the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling boom of the mid-eighties. After being a huge main-eventer and draw for years, his time in the limelight is long gone and he’s forced to find his way in a world that has passed him by.
My fear was that the film would be an insult to an industry that I grew up loving and to the many performers that I grew up respecting and will continue to respect to my last day (unlike the aforementioned Vince Russo, who only respects the males, natch!). And I imagine that at least some of my wrestling fan friends and followers may take a look at this post and wonder how wrestling is presented in the film. I want to be careful to keep this a movie post and not a wrestling post, but I’ll take a paragraph to say that this is the only film I’ve ever seen that presents wrestling with respect, while also taking a brutally honest look at its consequences. Either Aronofsky is a fan, he surrounded himself with fans for the making of The Wrestler, or he did a lot of research. There are photoshopped Pro Wrestling Illustrated covers that feature Randy. The insider jargon is there (my favorite line, as a group of independent wrestlers are backstage, discussing their match: “Don’t work the leg, man, come on. Everybody works the leg.”). The fan chants are authentic. Recognizable faces pop up, including R-Truth/Ron Killings, Necro Butcher, Ernest “The Cat” Miller, and my personal pick for the best male wrestler in the business today, Antonio Cesaro/Claudio Castignoli. In addition to all of this, the Ring of Honor promotion is heavily featured. So, wrestling fans can rest easy. This film isn’t an insult to you, the wrestlers, or the business.
The film itself is, much like this past weekend’s Sully, a deep character study. It almost plays like a documentary. It takes nearly a full forty minutes before we get what I’ve come to refer to as a film’s Compelling Event – the event that sets up an unresolved story element that the film then proceeds to build towards. This happens when Randy is booked for a small local show against the aforementioned Necro Butcher. The generation gap is evident as Randy has to ask Butcher to repeat himself when Butcher brings up the idea of using a staple gun in their match. This isn’t wrestling to a guy from the eighties like Randy (or to me, to be honest). This style has earned the name “garbage wrestling” within the industry and fan communities. All thought and storytelling is thrown out of the match in favor of brutality and shock value. But Randy goes along with it. And it takes a toll.
So why go along? Because the business has become his life. It’s his home. His family life is in shambles. He has no friends to speak of, except for a stripper named Cassidy (Tomei). The irony in this relationship is that Randy has spent his life in a business that’s famous for working people into thinking things are real when they aren’t (which is a thing of the past, by the way. Fans are now wise to the business, just as movie lovers know that movies aren’t “real”.), yet here he is, believing that he has a real relationship with this stripper who sees him as a customer. But sucking Randy in is never Cassidy’s goal. (Some might claim she falls into the stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché but referring to that as a cliché requires the intrinsic belief that most strippers, by definition, are bad people. I just refuse to subscribe to that way of thinking.) She sees a wounded soul in Randy and pulls back the curtain enough to give him some support but tries to remain true to the essential professional/client relationship. She’s a complex character and Tomei delivers an appropriately subtle and layered performance.
But without Cassidy, Randy has basically nothing. He’s entirely stuck in the eighties, when he was at his peak. He listens to eighties music. He plays the original Nintendo Entertainment System. He’s still rockin’ the mullet. And, yes, Randy “The Ram” actually drives a Dodge Ram. So, after the Ring of Honor promotion asks him to participate in a huge rematch of his pay-per-view classic from 20 years prior against his longtime rival, the Ayatollah (played by Ernest Miller), Randy sets out to also improve his personal life and finally live in the present with an eye towards the future.
When it comes down to it, though, the wrestling business is his family. It is his personal life. When his true family, his friends, and his day job reject him, he knows the fans will still love him. So breaking away from that is easier said than done, because we all crave to be loved. There’s a great scene where Randy is walking the halls of the supermarket in which he works, heading towards his new position as the deli counter worker. The halls of the supermarket remind him of the halls of the arenas in which he wrestled and he imagines hearing the fans as they anticipate his arrival. He stops behind the curtain of the deli as if it’s the gorilla position, right outside of a wrestling auditorium, and then he parts the curtain and morosely steps out into the deli, resigning himself back to his unwelcome reality. It’s sad and haunting and touching and real. It was easily my favorite part of the film.
Rourke really immerses himself in the role of Randy. He maintains his tough exterior but the pain underneath is all too real. How do let a world that loves you go in favor of a world that rejects you? A world you don’t understand?
While wrestling fans should absolutely see this film (you should have seen it long ago, really), one doesn’t need to know a thing about wrestling to appreciate it. It’s a movie about a wrestler, it’s not a wrestling movie. In fact, I most suggest it to those who are big fans and also to those who have had a lifelong negative opinion of the business. It’s an informative look at what the guys and girls who do this for a living sometimes go through. Things are thankfully different, now. They take better care of themselves both physically and financially, generally speaking. The current crop seems to have mostly learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. But they still sacrifice their bodies and their relationships to do what they love and to entertain the fans. They’re real people, just like anyone reading this and Aronofsky’s The Wrestler treats them with the respect they deserve while also offering up a heart-wrenching cautionary tale that so many of them have unfortunately experienced firsthand.
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