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.