Friday, January 16, 2009

The Wrestler (2008)


Quentin Tarantino told Elvis Mitchell in an interview that there may be nothing he loves more than when a director takes a genre picture by the horns and doggedly, trenchantly, runs with it. Darren Aronofsky does that, in a way, with The Wrestler, a scabrously gritty cine, which is so powerfully evocative of familiar “indie” touchstones—some of which Aronofsky has arguably had a significant hand in disseminating—that it belongs to a broader grouping of films, defined as much by stylistic technique as by content. And yet The Wrestler is not simply a director's passionate paean to the import of basic, cosmetically unadorned storytelling, but rather as recondite and intensely personal as his earlier works. What is to be found is the melding of sometimes bumptiously unconfined artistic sensibilities, which in previous outings threateningly teeter on the precipice of pretense, with a deceptively straightforward yarn that allows for the filmmaker's obsessions to be visited upon with vastly finer gracefulness. Those creative compulsions, which border on fetishists, include substance abuse, self-destruction, sacrifice, the fragility of life and the inevitability of death and senseless martyrdom. In Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, these were what those films boastfully proclaimed to be at the epicenter of their respective squalls. The Wrestler is far more guileful. It represents a major step forward for Aronofsky. He has found a breeding form from which he can essay his interests, rather than allowing his own vaguely haughty wants and desires to be expressly delivered through the granular revulsion and paranoia of Pi, kaleidoscopic operatics of Requiem for a Dream and bewildering phantasmagoria of The Fountain. The Wrestler is unassuming, which makes the film's subtler culling of its director's fixations all the more rewardingly relevant.

The Wrestler's modest trappings are things of vital necessity—not mere accessories and certainly not hindrances—that cumulatively mount an emotionally stirring portrait of one man. Ruminative and stark, with an oppressively dreary and downcast wintry setting in New Jersey, Aronofsky—expertly aided by cinematographer Maryse Alberti—establishes the gauntness of the titular wrestler's surroundings, as though he stands a lone figure amidst the ruins of his past experience atop the mountain of his profession. The first proper shot of the film captures the wrestler, sitting on a chair in an otherwise empty room, holding himself together, his head pointing downward, exhausted, appearing to have torn out the enactment of a bodily taxing professional wrestling contest as though he ripped it from his chest. This simple, compellingly surveyed sacrifice on the wrestler's part is a coursing theme on which Aronofsky brilliantly focuses.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is, as he will later say, a “broken-down piece of meat,” a living relic from the 1980s, when he dominated the world of professional wrestling as a top main event draw. He is a systematically physically decimated, financially shaky and perpetually lonely figure, having squandered his days of opulence on deleterious pursuits. An opening credits sequence with wrestling magazines and articles gift the viewer with all of the necessary back-story. What Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel accomplish is to portray “The Ram” as the man time forgot, from his apparent disinterest in cellular phones and other technological devices—he repeatedly finds pay-phones left rotting in decrepit condition with which to call people—to his keeping a Nintendo video game system in his trailer home with a wrestling game featuring no less than “The Ram” himself, to the nostalgic love he has for the rock bands of the time.

One way through which to view the film is the allegory Aronofsky brings to the forefront early in the film. Randy “The Ram” Robinson is compared to Jesus Christ by the person to whom he reluctantly confesses his myriad sins: a beautiful stripper nearer to his age than most at the local club, with the stage name of Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). As he recounts his in-ring war stories, showing off his scars and severe injuries to her, Cassidy attempts to quote The Passion of the Christ's presenting of Isaiah. Maximizing the thematic current of sacrifice and martyrdom, Siegel and Aronofsky point to the little details that possibly affirm this, including ones mentioned by Cassidy—the similarly long hair, and the extraordinarily high threshold for pain “The Ram” and the Son of Man share. Randy keeps an action figure of himself, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, on his truck's dashboard, like a religious symbol. Soon, the camera will spot a tattoo of Jesus' face on Randy's bulky back. “Blading” in a “hardcore” bout, his face becomes crimson, and his body is profusely pierced—by staples, thumbtacks and assorted flesh-tearing pieces of shrapnel.

The one shot utilized perhaps more than any other in The Wrestler is one that captures Randy from only a few feet away, from behind, as he walks to and fro. Aronofsky's film is truly semi-documentarian, and is, literally, interested in following this man on his tumultuous journey. The shot borders on being overused, it is so frequent, but as with so much of the film, it actually becomes endearing in its repetition: Aronofsky's visual consistency is tremendously exacting. Made up of finely framed, long and thoughtful hand-held shots, with close-ups and tracking shots, Aronofsky's unvarnished verite is elongated with a walloping command of mise-en-scene that is more uncompromisingly followed than the showier but less roundly perspicacious efforts of his previous pictures. Perhaps The Wrestler's most memorable sequence details Randy's first day working at a deli, with the camera following him descending through the dark bowels of a building like the backstage environs of an arena. Anyone even remotely familiar with televized pro wrestling will recognize the pre-performance ritual, which is given a wonderful ironic twist by Aronofsky, who, almost needlessly, supplies the ever-louder chant of his name ringing through an arena's audience just before he slips through the curtain. This immediately establishes the showmanship Randy will use to buoy his own experience behind the deli counter, ever in need of an audience.

Employing minimalism at all levels, Siegel and Aronofsky breeze right by the pit of ancient personal history that seems to be lurking behind Randy as persistently as the stalking camera—the viewer is allowed to invent the details of Randy's mightily tragic fall, with the fleeting fortune and gnawing, unspoken void that is his estranged daughter's mother—which centrally presents the congruously credible following of Rourke's Randy wherever he goes. The attention to detail demonstrated by Aronofsky may just be the film's second greatest asset. When Randy and Cassidy engage in an unusually bitter argument at the strip club, a man in camera range is noticeably eavesdropping on their conversation. When Randy walks into an arena, he says hello to a pair of old “midgets,” who had doubtless performed in the ring in their prime like he and other older men shown in the film had. A long, painful and emotionally vulnerable scene that plays out quietly, with Randy and a group of old, beaten-down wrestlers sitting at tables hawking merchandise and selling their autographs, resonates because Aronofsky is sufficiently confident to allow his camera to gradually become Randy's point-of-view. An old wrestler proficient in the violence of “hardcore” exhibitions covers up his lack of athleticism with the gruesome spectacle of bloody mayhem. Eventually, the true names of Randy (Robin) and Cassidy (Pam) are found to be sources of derision and strength for each respectively, as Randy seeks to escape the grind of every facet of his life through the possibility of a comeback in wrestling and Cassidy wishes to become Pam again, free from the slowly ruinous existence she has carved out for herself at the club. As Randy scoffs at the name he has to wear at his day job, Robin, Cassidy declares her independence by setting the record straight, referring to herself as Pam. Their link to one another transcends the obvious point that they are both performers attempting to make their audience forget about their own troubles. Randy gives Cassidy the Randy “The Ram” Robinson action figure, a token miniature of himself frozen in time. In a pivotal scene, Randy buys Cassidy a beer at a bar. Eventually the 1980s band Ratt's greatest hit, “Round and Round,” is played. Randy and Cassidy reminisce about the music of the '80s, noting that it was a tremendous time for music. They both agree about the subsequent decade: “The '90s fucking sucked.” The song allows for Randy's mythic attachment to a certain era to feel more palpable, and his disdain for the ignominious obsolescence that followed, all at once. And yet the song's name describes Randy and Cassidy's melancholic farce of a budding relationship—and the actions of the characters is perfectly matched by the chorus. As Cassidy ducks out of their impromptu date, quickly downing the “one beer” which served as the little date's raison d'être, the chorus chimes in: “I knew right from the beginning, that you would end up winnin', I knew right from the start, you'd put an arrow through my heart.” Indeed, Randy's heart is both literally and figuratively at stake in The Wrestler.

And then there is Mickey Rourke. The film would be effectually rendered by Siegel and Aronofsky with another actor in the part, but the role is demanding that a person at least somewhat familiar with pain, humiliation and personal and professional heartbreak take it as their own. Most men, especially of a certain age, have had to overcome the nocent impact these leave on their lives, and Rourke has been knocked around by mistakes made, befitting a Johnny Cash song (his onscreen alter ego receives one Golden Globe-winner from Bruce Springsteen). Parallel with Randy, Rourke was ascendant in the 1980s, and through unfortunate career choices, unruly temperament and an ostensible lack of respect for his own work—battling with directors, holding the Actors Studio in contempt—found his star precipitously drop. Grappling with and through the character, Rourke seems to find himself, a feat all the more momentous for its being recorded in cinema. Lines of dialogue must be said by someone; it is often how they are said that ultimately matters. Will it surprise anyone when the aforementioned line of self-diagnosis (“...I'm an old, broken-down piece of meat...”), the culmination of which is so moving, it should be reserved to be heard only in its proper context, or the simple, sweet line between store employee and elderly lady customer (“What you havin', spring chicken?”) become immortalized in how many years hence? Tomei is glorious, sexy and intelligent in a role that could easily have become a crushing cliché, and Evan Rachel Wood is mostly effervescently serene in her role as Randy's daughter (succumbing to one excessively “actorly” impulse in her final scene), but the film does truly belong to its leading man. The agony of Rourke's diamantine turn comments on the man's anguish, and his history informs the part, resulting in a performance that bleeds into and overlaps with the actor's true life to such an extent, it is an undeniable marvel that demands to be seen. What Aronofsky's film and professional wrestling share is an inescapable common bond, one that is shaped by their respective goals of showcasing anguish and glory, and all points that mark the way between. There is nothing fake about that.

60 comments:

Kevin J. Olson said...

I'm glad you loved this film. One of my indulgences after a day of work is to watch WWE late at night. I have pretty much always found myself a fan of professional wrestling so the themes and especially some of the shots of run-down wrestlers past their prime trying to hock merchandise didn't really surprise me all that much. But I'm glad Arronofsky showed it, because well, a lot of people think that these wrestlers are dumb people who just act out a scripted fake fight.

The truth is somebody was bound to make a film about the penance of these wrestlers, who for the most part are selfish men when things are going their way -- having to tour 360 days of the year would put a strain on anyone's family like -- and when things don't go their way they become sad, pathetic leeches clinging to whatever kind of pay day their fake name can get them. I'd like to think that Scorsese could have made this movie, too.

Some aren't bad people, and I like that Arronofsky shows Randy as someone who is realizing that, yeah, he really wasn't that great of a person so he tries to atone for things. But it's always about center stage with these guys as is evident in the wonderful deli scene and, as you mentioned, the brilliant way it was filmed to mirror his entrance into a wrestling ring.

Not all wrestlers are bad people, and I'm glad Arronofsky decided to make a movie about Mickey Rourke playing a wrestler played by Rourke himself (make sense?) instead of a real wrestler, because he's Rourke's much more sympathetic than some of the guys working in the wrestling business today.

The wrestling world is a fascinating business and for those that follow it closely it's easy to see how it brings out the worst in people as backstage politicking and an arrogance from older wrestlers, past their prime, still pointing to the ratings and money they were bringing in ten years ago as an excuse to keep them on top, is ruining the business. Professional wrestling autobiographies are actually really fun to read for that reason.

One more thing before I end this insanely long comment: Arronofsky does a great job showing how the family a professional wrestler has (and wants) is actually the backstage family of wrestlers; the guys he's going to beat on for 20 mins. and then congratulate in the back for a great match....mostly because he went over (he won) in the end. Professional wrestlers are fascinating people.

Great review. Sorry I took up so much space in the comments section. I'm glad you liked the movie, it was one of my favorites of '08.

Alexander Coleman said...

Kevin, thank you very much for the wonderful and highly insightful comment. Please never apologize for taking up space in the comments section--it is always the open range here for all who wish to comment, and, again, thank you for doing so. And thank you for the very kind words.

Having watched wrestling and attended matches myself in my life, I do believe that many who scoff at the spectacle are missing the cathartic service these entertainers provide. They are in their own way telling the same story over and over and over again--namely, good versus evil, based in western civilization's dramatic focus on conflict. This trait of western culture is what supplies the fuel on which so many enactments of the same, vital contest run, whether they be wrestling matches, plays, books, movies, television programs--parables about humanity, and the struggle between the two sides. Which is why whenever someone can capture this in its quintessential purity, as with, say, innumerable "grade-B" movies, to classics, to the original Star Wars trilogy, the public responds.

The trailer of the film, though good, almost makes it appear to be too similar to Beyond the Mat (I'm not sure if you saw this or not; if someone like movies and wrestling, they most certainly should), a documentary that chronicled the lofty highs and depressing lows many wrestlers have reached in their lifetimes. Specifically, Jake "The Snake" Roberts and his relationship, or lack thereof, with his estranged daughter was a major focal point of the documentary. (And the older "hardcore" wrestler who shoots staples in Randy seems at least partly modeled on Terry Funk, who is another wrestler highlighted in the film.) However, The Wrestler breaks free from any constrictions, and the time spent on Randy's relationship with his daughter informs the character's actions throughout the rest of the film, so it's truly extremely important to the film.

I like your point, Kevin, about how this--with its themes of obsession, fleeting fame (in some kind of environment, in any case), sacrifice, retribution (and penance, as you write) and religious importance--could have been made by Scorsese.

I agree wholeheartedly with your very eloquently stated point that the true family is the group of wrestlers who mingle with one another in the locker rooms, and by extension, their fans. Unless certain wrestlers do not happen to get along with one another, they are almost always cordial and open with one another, which always helps their matches in being entertaining and useful in putting someone "over." Wrestling is an interesting subject matter, in numerous ways, and like you, I'm glad that Aronofsky treated it with a commendable respect and dignity. The communal atmosphere of a packed auditorium, no matter how small, the intimate relationships between wrestlers and the basic examination of how punishing the job is for the performers (one can see why so many wrestlers tragically die far earlier than they should, or are addicted to painkillers and goodness knows what else, and in many cases have truly terrible injuries), Aronofsky covers it all. I agree that Rourke's back-story is in essence what helps to (or was designed to?) propel the back-story of "The Ram," a fictional wrestler, made whole by the actor's history in his fickle business based on performing. Thank you again, like I say, we have all the comment space in the world, ha.

christiandivine said...

Very precise and insightful look at Aronofsky's directorial prowess. He needed to subsume his tricks into less flashy style. He did.

But.

The film way overloads the Christ symbology, way overloads the pain and humiliation it dumps on Randy -- bypass, dead career, sad autograph show, estranged daughter, deli clerk, etc.

I think the script resorts to cliche when it needs to pull back and stay in the observational mode. Evan Wood I found utterly lacking and this is the script's fault, but there was no there there at all. "Fuck you daddy" is not depth. Tomei's racing to the event at the end smacks of awful Hollywood plottng too. And I really disliked Randy's freak-out in the deli -- telegraphed the second he got the job. There's too much pile-on even for a wrestler.

But I loved Rourke and the first 45 minutes and last ten, so it's still one of my faves of the year.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I've seen Beyond the Mat many times and it was actually the first thing that popped into my head when I saw the trailer for The Wrestler.

As for some of your other points about Aronofsky -- It's apt that he direct a film so rife with the metaphors he loves working with: addiction, loss, and a resurgent (and somewhat nostalgic) attempt at the ever elusive brass ring. The drug dealers had it in Requiem for a Dream (all drug movies have it: things go well, people make money then the movie progresses and things get worse; basic drug movie story arc) and Randy has it in The Wrestler; just in a different form. These guys (wrestlers/performers) are addicted, whether it be to painkillers, steroids, money, the lifestyle, or just the rush of thousands (or hundreds) of people cheering for you to always one-up yourself or put the other guy you are wrestling at greater risk for the enjoyment of the fans.

It's a catch-22 with us wrestling fans -- on the plus side Vince McMahon has made the sport safer by outlawing certain things and trying to protect his wrestlers in the ring (not that he cares for them, he just doesn't want to get sued) and the stupid hardcore faze of wrestling is over; relegated to the gyms and indie leagues as Aronofsky shows in his film (you're dead on about the Terry Funk look-a-like in the movie; a guy who masks his own inabilities in the ring with being able to take bigger, more dangerous bumps than the other wrestlers). On the other side of it, because of McMahon and co. playing it safe, things suffer, and these performers are left in the ring made out to caricatures we laugh at for awful their acting is, etc., rather than characters we believe in who are participating in theatrics of good vs. evil.

But back to the film (since that's what this is all about, hehe) and one of things I loved so much about it. Another story out Beyond the Mat that I was reminded of while watcing the Wrestler is the Mick Foley (Mankind) story where he attempts to bring his family into his wrestling life, and the shock and horror it is to his kids, too young to understand at the time, to see their daddy being hit repeatidly over the head with a steel chair (another good thing Vince has removed from wrestling today). This just made me think of the selfishness of these performers. Yes, I have no doubts they want to leave on top and on their terms, but they are defined by the character they've created for themselves. It's hard for them to exit stage left, the selfishness of always wanting more, and at the sacrifice of ones family (again thinking of Foley's story here as well as what Aronfsky allows us to assume about Randy and his daughters relationship) no less. It's sad. It's as simple as that, and what better medium to showcase this juxtaposition of feelings: exhilarating for the fans watching and for the performers, but depressing for fans who think about what it does to the family, and the wrestler who continues to work past their prime, leaving less time for their family.

It also shows just how attached they are to their character, because they will most likely be relying on that character well past their prime for a nice pay day. This is all wrapped up nicely in The Wrestler with that powerful, poignant, and all-too-realistic decision that Randy makes.

Lastly -- this is all countered nicely throughout the film with the wonderful character of Cassidy. Tomei's performance is delicate and touching, a breath of fresh air for Randy's life; however she also brings with her the harsh truths of knowing the difference between the character you portray, whether it be at strip club or a wrestling ring, and who are in real life, and the commitments you make.

Anyway, those are some more thoughts I had. I watched Beyond the Mat with my fiance who thinks wrestling is the dumbest thing in the world, and even she felt some sadness and empathy for the Foley family and the whole Jake Roberts story. I think The Wrestler has the same power to transcend the subject it covers and really connect with people who have no interest in professional wrestling whatsoever; that's the mark of a great film.

Dorothy Porker said...

Just wanted to write a quick BRAVO for that review. Fantastic. I am a big, big fan of this film. I found Rourke transformative, and the supporting cast was just as capable. Aronofsky just keeps hitting them out of the park.

Alexander Coleman said...

I'm terribly busy today, but I will try my best to reply to all comments as usual. For now, Kevin and Dorothy, please allow me to respond to Christian's thoughts. I'll be sure to get to you two a just a little bit later today, I promise.

Christian: I have to agree, Evan Rachel Wood, who I thought was fine in her first few scenes, literally took me out of the film in her last scene. She turned on the acting tricks when called upon to make an impact and the whole scene where she throws Randy out of her life rang false to me as a result, again taking me out of the film.

As for Cassidy running a bit like Adrian in Rocky, I was very surprised Aronofsky went so far into formula--but I was able to chalk it up to him trying to make something of a genre picture of sorts, with clear "indie" trappings, as I wrote in my first sentence, vis-a-vis the Tarantino interview with Elvis Mitchell. That said, I can't deny your point one bit.

And finally, as for Aronofsky piling everything on Randy, including the pain and Christ symbology... Yes, again, I can't deny that. It goes so far. And yet, I forgave it, perhaps even somewhat embraced it because that is what Aronofsky does, after all. The torment for Jennifer Connelly and others in Requiem for a Dream went so far, so predictably "over-the-top," I've never bothered to see that film again because I found its pain and suffering to be its primary reason to exist (which seems to be why so many fan-boys worship it). I give Aronofsky credit for taking these obsessions and making a roundly, thoroughly comprehensive character study drama out of it.

But... I can't disagree with your points, Christian. The film isn't perfect; and the obviousness of Randy's deli outburst diluted the impact somewhat. (Likewise, I do think certain moments are given too much underlining by Aronofsky; I would like to see a take of Randy's walk to the deli without the chant, as it wasn't truly necessary.)

Thank you for the kind words and typically excellent thoughts, Christian.

I'll get to you, Kevin and Dorothy, soon!

Alexander Coleman said...

I'll take Dorothy on now, as she's a little easier: Thank you very much for the wonderfully kind words, Dorothy, and I'm most happy to hear you loved the film. My (largely minor) problems with the film do not, ultimately, hurt my enjoyment of it. Definitely one of the best films of 2008, and Aronofsky's most accomplished film in my opinion. (Though every time I see The Fountain I like it more and more.)

Alexander Coleman said...

Kevin, that is one tremendous look at how the whole professional wrestling gig, especially as it relates to what Vince McMahon has done to it in recent years. It's been many, many years since I watched any wrestling but I do remember reading how McMahon was pushing out certain "moves" like piledrivers and such, which are very dangerous. ("Stone Cold" Steve Austin is probably the most famous case of a wrestler being terribly hurt from such a maneuver.)

I did not know that "hardcore" was completely relegated to the smaller promotions nowadays, though I remember McMahon trying to get away from it. (Paul Heyman's ECW was the primary host for such crazed stunts, at least of any significance, before it folded like WCW into McMahon's empire.)

I like your comparison to the Foley family--which, contrast against Randy's fractured family and pathetic home life, seems a far healthier organism and place--and his children's horror at seeing their father brutalized by "The Rock." (I didn't know McMahon has moved his organization away from the use of steel chairs, either.)

One of the best elements of Beyond the Mat--and which bolsters your rightful claim that Aronofsky and wrestling go together so almost providentially--was the commonality the documentary filmmaker found in the wrestlers. They were, like you so aptly say, "are addicted, whether it be to painkillers, steroids, money, the lifestyle, or just the rush of thousands (or hundreds) of people cheering for you to always one-up yourself or put the other guy you are wrestling at greater risk for the enjoyment of the fans."

I'll always remember the shots of Terry Funk sitting next to the telephone, waiting for a call, to go back into the ring.

The use of the wrestlers' characters, past their prime speaks analagously to almost all aspects of life. So many people work tirelessly to build reputations, in one vocation, hobby or fixation or another, and for these battered brawlers their established name identity is candidly all they have going for them at a certain point, like you say. It's why Hulk Hogan could still headline a pay-per-view show only five or six years ago, from what I remember reading, despite being obviously an over-the-hill has-been.

It's an illuminating line of reason... Fascinating food for thought, related directly and indirectly through the film itself. Thank you for sharing the story of your fiance with Beyond the Mat, Kevin, as well as all other informative aspects of your thoughts!

Again, like Christian, I see the film's flaws, but like Christian, I think it's one of the best films of the year. And some of that is that it is, for all of its bluntness and obviousness in certain areas, open, free, loose and allowing for such ample ratiocination as this fine discussion.

slick said...

I'm amazed by this film as well. Rourke got inside the man. And let us inside him to see it.

Alexander Coleman said...

So very true, slick. Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

dugan nash said...

stone colds steve austin best movie since rocky

Alexander Coleman said...

Or at least his best since Condemned, right, Dugan? He wasn't... in Rocky.

ben said...

Breathtaking review, Mr. Coleman. You peeled many layers of this one for me here.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Ben, for the very kind thoughts.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Alexander:

Came across this and thought you might enjoy it:

http://www.411mania.com/wrestling/news/94645/%5BVIDEO%5D-Watch-the-Complete-Five-Part-Roundtable-for-The-Wrestler!.htm

This has been a fun discussion.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for supplying that, Kevin, I'll be sure to take a look at that later this evening.

douglas blatch said...

can u imagine if nicholas cage was randy instead of micky

Alexander Coleman said...

I can imagine that it would be terrible, Douglas. I'd rather not imagine it at all, honestly.

Sam Juliano said...

"the bewildering phantasmagoria of THE FOUNTAIN....."

Them's fightin words Alexander!!

Just kidding my good friend! Besides, you did redeam yourself in the fantastic comment thread here by admitting the film grows on you every time you see it. The composer Clint Mansell's score has much to do with that film's deep emtions, as I'm sure you have processed.

Your WRESTLER review is fantastic, all-embracing, penetrating and superbly written. So what else is new? Alexander Coleman would have it no other way! LOL!!! .....all joking aside, I must say that when you are motivated by personal passion, as opposed to writing a review with a more mid-range reaction armed with historical and sociological command of the material--you write with incredible precision and appreciation.

Do I love THE WRESTLER as much as you and the others here? Perhaps not quite, as it didn't make my ten-best list, and oddly it didn't stay with me l;ike some of the other films--perhaps its spare screenplay was not fully enriched in an artistic sence by the unqualified minalism, but it's still a very good film that I opted to name on my honorable mention list.
You point out so many components here that make this film so raw, riveting and powerful, not th eleast of which is a splendid discussion of the film's allegorical strain, with Randy the ram Robinson being compared to Jesus Christ, right down to the details, including the "hair" and "ability to sustain pain" or words like that. I see you did mention that staple gun sequence and the flesh-shrapnel, which I admit had me looking away from the screen, but furthered the film's uncompromised authenticity. You provide a beautiful description of the downcast wintry setting in NJ ("stark and ruminative") and you offer a persuasive argument for the film as "semi-documentarian." Simularly, I quite agree that the "visual consistency" is "tremendously exacting" and the use of the hand-held camera in the close-ups and the tracking shots is superlative.
You rightly noted the first day at the deli as an important sequence, but i admit i laughed myself silly at the later scene there when the old lady kept asking him to take out and put in salad, and his final way to deal with it!
Your comprehensive consideration of Mickey rourke's performance is the finest and most thorough of any I have seen on the net in any review. This was a magificent comeback performance that puts him in great shape for the Oscar, and if so, ,so be it. It was a fantastic turn, as you so eloquently convey in a packed and lengthy paragraph.
Your consideration of subsidiary themes like 'creative compulsions' and the final 'mighty fall' are outstanding. I do feel THE WRESTLER ended on just the right note.
For me what finally convinced me that (as great as the film is)it wasn't quite Top 10 fo rme was that I never emotionally connected with the character, and hence could not fully appreciate the painstaking minimalism/realism that made THE WRESTLER a riveting, engrossing and compelling film, yet at the end of the day...emotionally distancing.
I did not of course feel that way after THE FOUNTAIN (my #1 film of 2006) which to this day resonates with me. THE WRESTLER (as you allude to) has some striking thematic and cinematic similarities to REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.
Here is an excerpt from my own WitD review of THE WRESTLER to illustrate my own strong agreement with Alexander Coleman:

"In all actuality, despite some major events and happenings, The Wrestler is a non-linear film that is more a “slice of life” drama than it is a saga that is fueled by narrative occurrences. Aronofsky instead directs with an observant eye, seemingly regretting in his tone the extent of Randy’s plight, and how his situation is untenable. The rhythmic film is simultaneously pulsating and poignant, and the extraordinary performance by Mickey Rourke in the title role makes the sought-for realism that much more authentic. It is a role of unadulterated virisimilitude, and Rourke’s own career comeback is richly mirrored by the tenaciousness of the lead character he portrays. And the character is a sympathetic one, despite his failure to avoid trouble in every way, shape or form. Yet, despite the gruffy and trashy exterior, there is a beating heart underneath and an undeniable charisma that makes Randy lovable in spite of all the faults. His long blonde locks, kept back in a hairnet, make this undisciplined and wild force of nature an altogether magnetic personality that seems to unite his fans, and give him the impetus to press forward, even with the bleak prognosis of survival. As this larger-than-life character, Rourke stretches the boundaries of screen acting and surely puts himself strongly in the Oscar competition..."

I suspect THE WRESTLER will be making Alexander Coleman's ten-best list, if I had to speculate. Again, this is a wholly superlative essay, and one that will captivate all who come across it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Sam, thank you for the richly comprehensive comment here, as you have terrifically replied to so many of the points I make in my review of The Wrestler.

Don't worry, I didn't mean "bewildering phantasmagoria" in a strictly negative sense, just that, like Aronofsky's first two films, this attribute seemed to be in no small part the film's primary reason to exist. That said, The Fountain has grown on me and it should be interesting to take another look soon after watching The Wrestler. And yes, Chris Mansell's score for that and for The Wrestler are both influential in driving Aronofsky's visuals home.

Thank you for the remarkably kind words, Sam. It's always wonderful to hear from you. I'm particularly touched by your appreciation of my enthusiasm, haha. And that is quite a compliment about the attention I give Mickey Rourke, as he has been receiving quite the "tongue-bathing," on the Internet, to borrow a somewhat lewd phrase from others, haha. Thank you again, most sincerely, as always.

Good point about the humorous scene in which Randy deals with the old woman demanding the salad be a "little less" and a "little more," haha!

And I'm most glad that you left us an excerpt of your review. I understand that you were unable to connect with the character. There is an unremitting starkness and minimalism to the project, and I must confess, it's difficult to pinpoint exactly where the film and Rourke manipulated me into deeply caring about Randy. Perhaps it was a cumulative impact, but I think the turning point was, predictably, described visually by the picture I selected. Despite my significant problems with the final scene between Rourke and Evan Rachel Wood--I wish Aronofsky had thrown that take in the garbage and underplayed that scene more, especially on Wood's end--I thought the scene at the amusement park was devastatingly beautiful.

Again, thank you.

greg said...

listen brother if you like this movie then you are a bunch of gibroni's and i am going to do a flying elbow drop on your ass

Joel E said...

Nice review, Alexander, but I'm afraid I agree with Christian fairly closely on this one. Rourke is great and the movie has some wonderful moments, but the script is chockful of cliches and even Aronofsky's smart directorial choices are undermined by his continuing need to pack his films full of obvious symbols and metaphor. I also found his leering treatment of Marisa Tomei a little disturbing.

Curious note: the script was written by Robert Siegel, who worked for the Onion. Maybe the script was meant to be a parody of the "boxer" genre and Aronofsky mistakenly took it seriously? OK, I'm joking but the irony here is a little weird.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

A very nuanced reading, Alexander, and the comments section has been a fair read as well. I caught "The Wrestler" on Friday.

Like many other individuals here I'm personally torn. I also recognize the clichés, although I think there's something to be said for a film that features both an 11th hour love interest sprint to the ring and a staple-gun melee expressed in flashback. In other words, there's a (I think intentional?) juxtaposition between recognizably Hollywood motifs and an underground brutality -- the friction between myth and palpable muscle is an intriguing one, and the effect is a little like watching Hollywood clichés occur before you in real-time, rather than being performed in the studio.

The most disconcerting aspect of the film to me, however, and I am doubtlessly alone in this, was Rourke. As AC says:

I agree that Rourke's back-story is in essence what helps to (or was designed to?) propel the back-story of "The Ram," a fictional wrestler, made whole by the actor's history in his fickle business based on performing.

The back-story is propelled, indeed, but for an individual familiar with the actor's banishment from cinematic Eden the emphasis becomes Rourke and not Randy the Ram. The monologue he delivers before the final fight could very well be from the lips of Mickey himself -- "I'm still standing..." etc. I felt as though Rourke was collapsing the crucial level of artifice necessary in a "method" performance, and asking the audience to simply accept Randy as a thinly fictive proxy. Which isn't acting -- it's self-exploitation. Even more bothersome is the way the film is being marketed -- the "resurrection of Mickey Rourke". Once again, I'm probably alone in this criticism and I don't necessarily disagree with the praise Rourke has been receiving, but this character was not precisely a challenge for him to embody. Compare a role like this with, say, De Niro's in "Raging Bull," where the actor summons forth and expels an animal pugilism that seems to come from nowhere.

Also, I did note that the screenwriter was an Onion alum, and the only scene where that fact felt rewarding was the one with the fireman-obsessed one night stand. Post-9/11, the comic premise of fixing a firefighter as one's fetishist fulcrum is not only shockingly relevant, it's painfully hilarious.

K. Bowen said...

Nice review, Alexander. Glad you liked it. I don't think enough has been made out of the Christian element, so I'm glad you mentioned it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Greg, you have inspired fear among all who dare to like The Wrestler.

Joel, I understand your problems with the film. Especially about the numerous cliches, and how they do at least occasionally hold the film back.

I do believe that your point is at least half-true, Joel--in that I suspect the screenplay was meant to be more metatextual than it was finally interpreted as by Aronofsky, both in the minute details and the larger thematic arcs that run through the finished product. This is one attribute of Aronofsky's I've always admired, even when I've found his films dissatisfying or in one way or another fairly maddening: he seems sincere, and so, as he was making a film far more formally "conventional"/linear/familiar/hackneyed/formulaic, however you wish to describe it, he seemed to be less afraid of "run[ning] with it," to partly quote the first sentence of my review. And I respect that, even if I agree with you and others that it leaves more blemishes on the film than being more conservative. In any case, thank you for the kind words, Joel.

Joseph, thank you for stopping by, reading and commenting. And thank you for the kind words. I believe your point concerning the film's symbiosis of the cliche and the verite realism, of the familiar fantasy and the "palpable muscle," as you write, is completely correct. Just as the film is both an effort to create an unalloyed work that stands on its own, apart from the (at least) borderline presumptuousness of Aronofsky's cinematic dernier cri, and to expand on his established personal themes through a more deceptive point of entry, so too is the film striving to mix the gritty brutishness it depicts with the romantic trappings of Hollywood movies so routinely based on a hero's "comeback" of one sort or another.

As for the point about Rourke's back-story being the selling point of the film, this is an interesting appraisal, not merely of the film but its marketing campaign. Confined to the film itself, this never bothered me, though the marketing--beginning with the "...resurrection of Mickey Rourke" line so prominently displayed--does irritate a little. And most importantly, I must agree that Rourke playing Randy is not much of a stretch--despite Rourke's stories of having to train as a wrestler for months, sustaining serious injuries along the way--and does not compare with Robert De Niro's complete metamorphosis in Raging Bull. Having said that, though, I believe Siegel's screenplay allows for Randy's plight to stand on its own, apart from the actor playing him. This is a judgment call, though, and depends on how compelling you found the character, and how much the film managed to make you empathize with him, and not continually linger on Rourke's own, separate history, however beneficial it was in shaping the performance and consequently the film. For many, I am sure they see Rourke, with the character serving as a mere vehicle for him to engage in "self-exploitation," but for others I imagine the film successfully had its cake and ate it, too, using Rourke's plentiful baggage as only the springboard for all that follows. I say that because I fell in the latter camp--while admitting I see why others would see it differently.

KB, thank you for the kind words. Yes, the Christ symbolism is there, and though Randy and Cassidy seem to halfheartedly brush it aside and dismiss it themselves, Aronofsky continues to point to it. Not coming down on it one way or the other, as some I'm sure have, I found it to be a fascinating lamina of the picture to explore. Since Randy is the good guy, or "babyface" in wrestling, the allegory's potency is maximized: as a good guy, Randy would receive an optimum level of punishment throughout a match to ensure complete audience sympathy, only to frequently vanquish the seemingly unstoppable villain, or "heel," in the end. Also, the psychological bonding between audiences and wrestlers when they are either pretending to or in actuality are suffering, is not a world away from the appreciation Catholics have for the Divine Mercy image, and the attendant commentary by Saint Faustina Helena Kowalska, "Happy is the one who will dwell in the shelter..." It is an interesting line of thinking to ponder, even if the film perhaps strives too heedlessly in pursuing it.

Rick Olson said...

Nice review, Alexander. Though I haven't seen the film, I am always fascinated with Christ figures, which abound in modern cinema.
Your piece indicated that Aronofsky pounds home the Christ analogy with not a lot of subtlety. Is that fair?

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

I'm sure AC has his own incisive response to Rick Olson's query, but this comment reminded me of another point I neglected to make the first time 'round related to the Judeo-Christian imagery. Hopefully no one minds.

Yes, there is a lot of it, and yes, it's hammered home with the film's requisite brute force. Any movie that gleefully allows its protagonist to bombastically wear a crown of (virtually literal) thorns is asking for some degree of criticism. I believe there's even a passage in a biblical text where Christ is compared to or metaphorically referenced as a ram (although this may have been forced foreshadowing from the Old Testament).

That having been said, I had many issues with this film but the overbearing savior motif wasn't one of them, partially because the obvious symbolism fit the overall burly tone and also because there are moments of ironic self-reflection. For example, the scene where Cassidy quotes scripture -- and then innocently cites the source as Mel Gibson's "The Passion" movie, rather than the Bible. The scene's jokey capper ("that was one tough mutherfucka," or whatever it is that Randy says) is a bit much, but I like how the symbolism works in reverse: Randy the Ram isn't Christ, Christ is just another wrestler. Consider that Christ's supernal travail on earth (from the Bible's point of view) had a hint of pageantry in it -- like most wrestling matches, his temptations and crucifixion were predestined, scripted. And yet (and again this is the Christian viewpoint, not mine), the blood that poured from his wounds was real, as well as being for the benefit of a cheering, puzzled public. And the ubiquitous presentation of the Christ myth in occidental culture does, I think, in a way "redeem" us from our lust for violence (and our insistence upon perpetually seeking "meaning" in the visceral), just as the controlled chaos of a wrestling ring allows for the (somewhat) safe expression and expulsion of compressed tribal masculinity. So, in a way, the film doesn't quite beatify Randy the Ram so much as it trivializes (maybe) and cleverly contextualizes (definitely) Christ within the hierarchy of modern gender/cultural stations.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Rick. Yes, it is fair to say the Christ symbology is not handled as subtly as some would doubtless prefer.

Having said that, however, Joseph finishes hitting on the point I was only beginning to touch in my last comment. The screenplay allows its characters to treat the thought of Cassidy's as a joke. It makes sense that she would see The Passion of the Christ and take from it what she evidently did. Randy's "one tough mothafucka" line prompts a laugh--this is another aspect of the picture that plays as a simultaneously earnest and a somewhat mordacious metatextual interrogation of the very formula it wears as its own.

And I agree with Joseph that Randy, as a wrestler, serves as something of the symbol for Christ--and, with this strange, endearing universalism, Christ becomes just another wrestler, a "tough mothafucka" who allowed himself to be punished for the sins of the literal and figurative spectators. And Joseph is right--this is something I wanted to note in my comment last night but I had one eye on going to bed--Christ's entire odyssey on earth was, as Isaiah (Gibson's partial presentation of which stays with Cassidy) makes clear, in a way predestined, and "scripted," including the outcome. Judas Iscariot, Yosef Bar Kayafa (Joseph, son of Ciaphas) and Pontius Pilate had to play the "heels" for Christ to "go over" for all eternity.

Returning to your question, Rick, yes, it may have been better if Aronofsky had been a little more nuanced in his treatment of this vein, but I also agree with Joseph that the film's inherent lack of simple reverence, and the observational manner in which Aronofsky presents events that take place in the film, cloak the symbolism sufficiently so to ensure it never becomes particularly tiring.

Moses Hernandez said...

I'm always amazed at how you see a film and write such a terrific review of it a couple hours later or something. Great review Alexander. I have to see this soon.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the kind words, Moses. I hope you see it soon.

tim watts said...

I just saw this last night and loved it. Fantastic review here!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very kindly, Tim. Glad to hear you enjoyed the film.

Joel E said...

Fun comment thread here. Joseph, you made me smile with some of your analysis.

I think I liked the movie a little bit more than I let on but I did have a lot of issues with it, Alexander.

Alexander Coleman said...

I understand, Joel. Thank you for the clarification, though. And it has been a fun discussion, if I do say so myself.

Tony D'Ambra said...

I just saw The Wrestler, Alexander, and I found your review deeply interpretative.

Rourke's strong performance makes the picture, but otherwise I was disappointed. I deeply admire The Fountain, but here Aronofsky has made just another Hollywood picture. The rich and resonant motifs and symbolism are used in the service of a rather banal and clichéd story, which does not cover new ground and shows little maturity. The scenario of the loser bad father who loves the Madonna whore, and has an estranged histrionic daughter is too hackneyed to sustain the crucifixion motif: pearls before swine. The hand-held camera perpetually trying to keep up with Randy may give the film an Indie cinema verite feel, but the cliché overload makes it redundant. The Magdalenesque ending is predictable and cloying.

But what really strikes me is the unrelieved ugliness of the appalling wrestling scenes and its contrived yet explicit violence. With respect, I feel you and a not a few of the commentators let wrestling and those who promote it and enjoy it, undeservedly off the hook.

If there is any deeper symbolism, and here I give Aronofsky the benefit of the doubt, it is that in a market economy, even the human body is simply a commodity, 'meat' ripe for exploitation and abuse - be it wrestler's steroid-enhanced body or the explicit cavorting of a stripper.

Randy's alienation needs to be exploded not glorified.

Alexander Coleman said...

Interesting, Tony. Well, I am saddened to hear your coolness for the film. I understand, however, that The Wrestler--underneath all of the "verite realism" and semi-documentarianism, the film does manage to become rather subservient, in its own way, to Hollywood formula.

I agree that Randy and Cassidy are both exploited flesh. I see your point about the wrestling fans and promoters--but I was in a way happy to see Aronofsky not let them become villains, as boxing fans and the profession itself have in numerous Hollywood pictures. I do honestly think that Randy's unfortunate place in society speaks to the evils of his line of work, as well as Cassidy. Nevertheless, you bring many good thoughts to the table as always, Tony.

We can agree that Mickey Rourke is an invaluable ingredient here. Good to see you back.

TURBO THE TERRIBLE said...

MICKEY ROURKE RULES.

Alexander Coleman said...

In this film, he does indeed "rule," Turbo.

mc said...

Alexander you have captured the essential spirit of this movie, and of Rourke's performance. Great reading.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very kindly, mc.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Coleman I loved your insightful review. The Wrestler brought to life the concept of Jesus Christ as ordinary man... deeply flawed but deserving of great love and forgiveness. Rourke wasn't just playing himself, he was playing all of us.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Anonymous. I appreciate your kind words and incisive thoughts.

ben said...

Alexander Coleman your review is absolutely amazing. It brought tears to my eyes just like the movie itself.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for those humbling words, Ben. Don't know what else to say, but thank you. This is a film I am actively looking forward to revisiting soon.

Anonymous said...

Sensational review. A must read for anyone who sees this must see movie.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very kindly, Anonymous.

Oshi Tanaka said...

Beautiful essay. Just beautiful.

Film criticism is an art form. You paint with words, Mr. Coleman.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, thank you very much, Oshi. Far too kind for you to say that. I am quite pleased by your affection for the piece, and, I assume, the film.

Sam Juliano said...

"Beautiful essay. Just beautiful.

Film criticism is an art form. You paint with words, Mr. Coleman."

Oh I will second that motion!!! Exquisite stuff there! One day i will be reading your work in a major publication.

Alexander Coleman said...

I'm purple from embarrassment, Sam. Thank you very much.

Film-Book dot Com said...

“The first proper shot of the film captures the wrestler, sitting on a chair in an otherwise empty room, holding himself together, his head pointing downward, exhausted, appearing to have torn out the enactment of a bodily taxing professional wrestling contest as though he ripped it from his chest.”

One of my favorite scenes and one of the most telling scenes in the film.

“Maximizing the thematic current of sacrifice and martyrdom, Siegel and Aronofsky point to the little details that possibly affirm this, including ones mentioned by Cassidy—the similarly long hair, and the extraordinarily high threshold for pain “The Ram” and the Son of Man share. Randy keeps an action figure of himself, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, on his truck's dashboard, like a religious symbol. Soon, the camera will spot a tattoo of Jesus' face on Randy's bulky back. “Blading” in a “hardcore” bout, his face becomes crimson, and his body is profusely pierced—by staples, thumbtacks and assorted flesh-tearing pieces of shrapnel.”

The jesus symbolism is something I missed.

I usually keep my thoughts on camera usage out of my reviews. Now I see how erroneous that was.

“Their link to one another transcends the obvious point that they are both performers attempting to make their audience forget about their own troubles.”

I saw this connection as well. Some of the others I didn’t. You have some eye for detail Alexander. Get those god damn books published!

“Parallel with Randy, Rourke was ascendant in the 1980s, and through unfortunate career choices, unruly temperament and an ostensible lack of respect for his own work—battling with directors, holding the Actors Studio in contempt—found his star precipitously drop.”

I can’t believe he passed on Pulp Fiction and the role of Butch without even reading the script. I guess that is the only way someone could realistically pass on a role in that film.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the wonderful comment and kind words. Very appreciated. Sorry for not getting back to you earlier.

Film-Book dot Com said...

No problem Alexander, take your time.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, the wrestler-and-stripper connection is an intriguing one. Lesser films would have settled for that symmetry of characters--which The Wrestler takes almost for granted, wisely, it should be said--making the entire experience vastly more organic.

Yes, Rourke passed on Tom Cruise's role in Rain Man and quite a few other choice parts that I would have loved to have seen him perform. A true shame, what happened to him. But now he's in Iron Man 2 so that should pay the bills; guess I won't feel sorry for him forever.

Anonymous said...

Your right Mr. Alexander Coleman. I think this movie will live on. Lines from it will be remembered. Mickey Rourke's performance will be too. And I agree that this is Mr. Aronofskys best flick.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous. It is good hearing from you.

Harold said...

I read this review last night. Still soaking it in. Coleman man you are a real wordsmith and thinker. Are you a college professor or something?

Alexander Coleman said...

Haha, no, Harold, but thank you very much for the kind words.

Anonymous said...

Amazing review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you quite sincerely, Anonymous.