The Wrestler

The Wrestler
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay: Robert Siegel
Stars: Mickey Rourke (Randy “The Ram” Robinson), Marisa Tomei (Cassidy), Evan Rachel Wood (Stephanie Robinson), Mark Margolis (Lenny), Todd Barry (Wayne), Wass Stevens (Nick Volpe), Judah Friedlander (Scott Brumberg), Ernest Miller (The Ayatollah), Dylan Summers (Necro Butcher), Tommy Farra (Tommy Rotten), Mike Miller (Lex Lethal)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2008
Country: U.S.
The Wrestler Blu-Ray
The WrestlerThe defining shot in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, a bittersweet story about a man struggling through life’s second act, is a tracking shot that follows right behind the titular character, a decaying former superstar named Randy “The Ram” Robinson, as he walks down various hallways and stairwells. The immediate effect of these recurring shots is an emphasis on Randy’s bulky form, which is pumped up, oiled, and tanned to the point that it looks like a worn leather bag that has been overstuffed and is in danger of bursting, a point that is amusingly underscored by his striking shock of long bleach-blonde hair. These shots also emphasize the intense purpose of his gait, as he doesn’t so much walk through the environment as he punctures it.

Yet, for all the formidable elements of Randy’s presence, these tracking shots also have in them an element of sadness and an emphasis on what has been lost. In form, they replicate the cliché shot following a champion as he makes his way into the ring, but in substance they emphasize Randy’s downward spiral, because rather than striding into a vast arena filled with screaming fans and making his way toward the possibility of greatness, he is entering increasingly diminishing spaces that embody the downward trajectory of his life. The first tracking shot follows him after one of his wrestling matches, which was set in a small civic center that is a pale shadow of his days rocking Madison Square Garden, and one of the last follows him through the back hallways and storerooms of the grocery store where he works by day as a deli counter attendant.

Aronofksy has said in multiple interviews that he insisted on the casting of Mickey Rourke, whose own falling star in Hollywood has more than a few associations with the fictional story on-screen, making it seem all the more intimate and poignant. Once one of the most promising actors of the 1980s, whose good looks, rugged persona, and Method intensity reminded many of a young Marlon Brando, Rourke burned out in a series of bad movie choices and difficult behavior, capped in the early 1990s by his bizarre decision to give up acting and concentrate on a career in boxing, which took such a toll on his visage that he barely resembles the man he was two decades ago. Although he has worked consistently over the past 10 years, mostly in throwaway roles as a heavy, Rourke has been largely forgotten or ignored by the Hollywood elite, which is why Aronofsky had such a hard time casting him. As it turns out, it was a gamble well worth taking, as Rourke gives a powerful, lived-in performance that, in true Method fashion, must have been drawn deeply from the torment of his own demons. His Randy “The Ram” is a character in the great tradition of the cinematic down-and-out, but Rourke wears his scars (both physical and emotional) with such naked humanity that his performance becomes a kind of on-screen outpouring of his own grief and waylaid potential.

The story, penned by newcomer Robert Siegel, is simple and direct. After the opening credits fade in and out against a collage of images from Randy’s glory days in the ’80s while the power chords of Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head” blast on the soundtrack, we are introduced to Randy’s life in the here and now of wintry New Jersey, which consists of weekend bouts on the local wrestling circuit attended by aging die-hard fans and trying to get through the weeks in-between. He is constantly struggling for money, and when he gets locked out of his trailer for not paying the rent, it is clearly not the first time. When he asks for additional hours at the grocery store, he must endure taunts from the balding, middle-age manager who is obviously taking out his own insecurities.

About the only place Randy seems to feel any comfort is a small strip club, where the attention paid to him by Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, who just keeps getting better), a stripper who is also in danger of being past her prime, has more depth than a few twenties normally buys. Both Randy and Cassidy have made their livings exploiting their bodies, and they also share a fellowship of outsider status, not just socially, but temporally. Their main bonding moment is drinking beer and reminiscing about how the good times hair metal of the ’80s was needlessly cut down by the angst of ’90s alt-rock, which makes for a surprisingly compelling summation of their lives: In their dreams they’re still living in a freewheeling world of fun and abandon, but their reality is a harsh place of disappointment and struggle.

Otherwise, we don’t learn much about Randy--where he comes from, how he blew all his money from the glory days, and so on. The Wrestler is a story set very much in the present tense, which is constantly in danger of coming to a conclusion. Early on Randy has a heart attack after a particularly brutal wrestling bout that involves a staple gun and barbed wire, and his doctor informs him that he has to retire lest he cause his ticker to stop permanently. As brushes with death often do, Randy is forced to reconsider his life and what he has done with it, which leads him to the doorstep of his teenage daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he abandoned years ago and who has learned to hate him in the meantime. Randy wants to make right in his life, but he simply doesn’t know how, and that is his tragedy.

Shunning the visual flourishes that defined his previous two films, the grim addiction drama Requiem for a Dream (2000) and the misguided romantic fantasy The Fountain (2006), Aronofsky turns to a more stripped down aesthetic, one that immediately brings to mind the gritty, documentary-inspired early films of ’70s auteurs like William Friedkin and Martin Scorsese. Aronofsky and his cinematographer Maryse Alberti, who has shifted seamlessly between features and documentaries, in the process collaborating with the likes of Scorsese, Todd Solondz, and Todd Haynes, brilliantly fuse form and content, allowing the brute simplicity of the style to enhance the brute simplicity of the narrative, which is built on a sturdy, but almost too familiar foundation.

Perhaps to compensate for this, Aronofsky invests a great deal in the grinding details of Randy’s profession, which is often derided for being “fake,” but is shown here as a complex kind of performance art that relies on scripted conflict and preset maneuvers that nevertheless exact a physical toll that is all too real. The brutal abuse that Randy endures will cause even the most jaded viewer to wince, and his meaty body seems to be literally sweating out the years of mistreatment it has absorbed. The attention paid to cuts and stitches and scar tissue--the constant reminders of a life in which his body was his ticket to glory--finds an apotheosis of sorts in a scene in which Randy and other weathered veterans sign autographs for a few doting fans, ending with Randy’s gaze being held by a catheter bag exposed beneath the pant leg of one of his fellow wrestlers.

Despite its bleak subject matter, The Wrestler constantly holds out the hope of redemption, even as it complicates any notion of what that redemption might entail. In spirit it is very much the heir of Rod Serling’s haunting live television drama Requiem for a Heavyweight, which aired in the early 1950s with Jack Palance in the heartbreaking role of a washed-up boxer with nowhere to go. Randy isn’t quite the muscle-headed innocent that Palance played; his hard living and bad choices are clearly to blame for his current position, and he answers to no one but himself. Yet, it is for this very reason that he maintains his dignity, even when he’s “gigging” (cutting himself with a razor in the ring to give the ravenous audience some blood) or sitting in a beauty shop having his hair bleached to just the right shade. He is a singular character whose life has been so sharply defined by his wrestling persona that it’s impossible to imagine him outside of it, which is why it was such a brilliant decision to end the film in a moment of narrative ambiguity that hinges on an image of Randy doing that which he does best.

The Wrestler Two-Disc Blu-Ray Set

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
  • “Within the Ring” making-of documentary
  • “Wrestler Round Table” featurette
  • Bruce Springstreen “The Wrestler” music video
  • Digital copy of the film
  • Distributor20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    Release DateApril 21, 2009

    The Wrestler was originally shot on Super 16mm and then blown up to 35mm for theatrical presentation, so it has an inherently grainy, relatively low-res look, even in 1080p high definition (I assume the transfer was made from a 35mm print, rather than the original Super 16mm negative). The film’s presentation on this Blu-Ray disc is true to its intended look, with desaturated colors, strong contrast, and a rough, gritty look that Darren Aronofksy describes as “proactive documentary style.” The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack is quite effective, immersing you in the sounds of the wrestling matches but also creating realistic ambient environments during the film’s more quiet scenes. And, of course, the ’80s hair metal on the soundtrack has all the power you would expect.
    There aren’t many supplements on this disc, but the ones that are included are definitely worth watching. First up is “Within the Ring,” a solid 42-minute making-of documentary that includes plenty of behind-the-scenes footage during the film’s location shoot in New Jersey and interviews with director Darren Aronofsky, writer Robert Siegel, producer Scott Franklin, editor Andy Weisblum, composer Clint Mansell, production designer Tim Grimes, and stunt coordinator Doug Crosby, among others. There is also a compelling 25-minute featurette titled “Wrestler Round Table” in which five former professional wrestlers--Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, Lex Luger, and “Diamond” Dallas Page--sit around a table after having screened the film and discuss its portrayal of professional wrestling. The wrestlers are thoughtful, articulate, and quite moving in talking about their profession and both the excitement of it and the toil it has taken on their lives. Finally, the disc includes a Bruce Springsteen music video and also a downloadable digital copy of the film.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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