The Wrestler
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Robert Siegel

Dig if you will Randy “The Ram” Robinson, this slab of macho ruin , has-been wrestling superstar and 80s holdover, scraping for rent on the amateur circuit but some nights barely eking out enough that he has to sleep in his van. It’s a pitiful figure he tends to cut, a brokedown redneck tragedy, a soldier without a war - - - those long and ratty hair-metal locks stranded between a lion’s mane and a blonde floormop, that swollen physique bearing his traumas like map points down to the last shred of scar tissue. He embodies a kind of quintessence, the brutal backfire of following your bliss,-but also a kind of bland anachronism, the sports film washout.

Dig if you will, too, Mickey Rourke , the icon in eclipse , he’s been box office poison for so long that his spurts of comeback have barely reversed his fall from grace. He’s something of an 80s holdover, too, and something of a hero of mine. Diabolical , risky and when cool needed embodying, there seemed no other. Rumblefish and Year of the Dragon and Barfly and Angel Heart and Johnny Handsome - - - that was the quantum of his streak, greased lightning. And then . . . but you all know what happened next. The brief detour into prizefighting may have been punk of him and the pet chiuaua he walked off a set for was primo nutso but he mostly embodied another bland anachronism, the haywire movie star.

Now dig if you will how both part and player blur the dichotomy between reel and real. The showbiz rise and fall. The toll of bodily abuse. The coasting on old glories. The catalogs of woe. The banalities of their turmoil. And the banalities of their pathos. The parallels are 30 feet tall and they glow in the dark - - -you can not not see it and not dig it. The craft Rourke deploys is impeccable,sure. Christian Bale in The Machinist was the last time someone threw himself at the mercy of extreme method, transforming his body into an atrocity exhibit. Rourke does little outside of a regimen and mostly he brings in his own wardrobe, so to speak, his own ossified battle scars,but the derelict physique that emerges gains the same inverted freakshow glamour. He’s this lumbering specimen of obsolescence, trapped in a world he didn’t make, visibly eroding into the margins with every shamble and groan, a grotesque Everyloser. It makes me skittish and uneasy just to watch him get from here to there.

Extract Rourke, though, and you have little left that isn’t derivative and corny and obvious and maudlin and conventional. Life’s nothing but a pileup of hackneyed clichés for this champion gone to seed, it turns out. And The Wrestler on paper is man soap succumbed to its worst tendencies. You could argue that real life’s mostly nothing but a pileup of hackneyed clichés anyway - - -and the banality of his turmoil somehow deepens the banality of his pathos by leaving him without even something to romanticize. And every hackneyed cliché the melodrama forces him to confront - - - the blue collar day job drudgery, the estranged daughter who loathes him, the single mother stripper whose heart of gold doesn’t quite beat for him, the heart attack that pretty much scrapes what residue of career he has left off his docket - - - is never really taken to the places where they become cliché. But what empowers them mostly is the palpable tingle of desperation Rourke imbues them with, this sense of something at stake, as if everything was the last straw, as if the picture was, for Rourke. And it could well be. It’s more than mere resonance. It’s thick enough to cut with a knife. And thick enough to pack a wallop. Rourke stews inside the Ram, occupying the wartorn carcass so thoroughly you can’t see the joins. And who's to say if there are any at all.

Every time someone talks about the difficulty in picturing anybody else in the part, it’s more likely these creepy double exposures they’re talking about. Aronofsky is many things to many people - - - showy , devious, beyond, wild , curious, awry, none of which scan as flaws to me - - -but he’s canny,too. He knows the whole meta throb, once it starts to woo our thrall to trainwrecks, can chew miles further than the tepid fiction he has to wring a movie from. The aesthetic gesture of feeding off the stark naturalism of Jean Luc & Pierre Dardenne stops at the way the camera prowls and with the tawdry minimalism 
- - - but that’s more out of how everything is pared down to give Rourke every square inch of room he needs. And he strides like a colossus across it. None of what he does is terrifyingly original, but all of it is terribly authentic.It really is the full circuit of a comeback. He exalts the piece and in doing so, ennobles himself. The Wrestler is piffle but Rourke’s a hand grenade with a blast radius so immense he takes everything else with it.

* Originally published in Philippine Free Press


Noel Vera said...

Good stuff, Dodo, and yes without Rourke this isn't much of a movie. But I also like it that Aronofsky is pretty much restrained here, doing a higher-wattage version of John G. Avildsen. The transformation ain't exactly a Fincher, but it's not bad, not bad at all.

Would you know when this is opening?

dodo dayao said...

Thanks, Noel. "Higher-watatge John Avildsen" . . . like that, and I agree.

Not sure when it's opening here, though. There's zero noise about it ,which is strange, given the Oscar buzz.

addison said...

The lack of distribution here is something I find weird also.

Now on to a very equally verbose reply.

I've probably seen almost all if not then at least a huge amount of reviews for this movie, both pros and cons. A huge amount of them from guys clueless or at least not that really very familiar with the smark territory in the wrestling industry.

This is where I give Arnonofsky applause more than anything else and where this movie really excelled when those not familiar cannot see it.

The last 15 or so years saw the emergence of tons of pro-rasslin documentaries, all provocative and very detailed of most of the tragedies that occurred (there are tons of happy stories too but that doesnt fascinate supposed art critics). Of course the number one market for these are the smarks, short for smart marks, a term ridiculed by the late great Brian Pillman. The man whose career was polar opposite to Randy The Ram, as the guy was definitely destined for more success even if he was the so-called "loose cannon of pro wrestling" but still died early anyway simply for the destructive lifestyle his career perpetuates. His buddy Stone Cold Steve Austin took the ball and ran with it and became a household name.

Now what does that all have to do with this movie? Simple, it inspired it. Took all the pile of hackneyed cliches that is real life, the tragedy, the obscurity, the grief and the actual mundane essence of it all. Then it presented it to us filtered and devoid of the familiarity, the sentimentality, the nostalgia and most importantly the sense of prestige and admiration.

It was an unadulterated glimpse of a tragedy of a guy trying good but is hindered by his own inherent nature of being a loser.

Time and again to those who bothered to look and see, we had been shown how much of a clusterfuck Jake Roberts is and how he always ends up messing his life. All accurate and unyielding in their presentation yet that fact has always been glossed over intentionally or unintentionally by the core intended audience simply for the fact of respect, nostalgia, a sense of familiarity from someone from their childhood and whatever other reasons. This movie delivered that message unencumbered by any of those. This movie delivered the point that any real life genuine documentary has not been able to. By removing the most critical factor of all, the genuine reality of an existing person, the presence of the genuine subject. And instead replaced it with the best possible shoe-in of all, an actor with uncanny real life experience parallel to the subject.

With that, the biggest obstacle of clearly seeing the tragedy has been destroyed with all its baggage. Ironic that you can only achieve this clear and stark view of reality only by taking away the reality itself. The entire film was an exercise of solving a conundrum.

He effectively portrayed and showed the life of a real life famous loser trapped in a vicious circle of self-destruction by making it fictitious portrayed by a real life but more famous loser acting like a real life loser.

dodo dayao said...

Not as hardcore a wrestling fan so the specificity of the archaeology tends to go over my head and the only vantage point I can see this from is as drama,as narrative, as cinema.

I do get where you're coming from - - - I didn't think much of Julian Schnabel's Basquiat (he's since improved immensely as a filmmaker) but being a fan of the art scene,I was enthralled, and in many ways that film did for Basquiat what this one did for Jake Roberts (it is supposed to be based on his life,am I right?), tell the truth through a lie,like you said - - - but it bugs me a little that my enjoyment of a film will have to hinge on a dedicated and in-depth familiarity with the milieu. It's a fascinating milieu, don't get me wrong, but it's a trope, nothing more ,nothing less. Accuracy and realism has never been a prerequisite of mine when it comes to art.

Having said that, and to second Noel, I do like this restrained, stripped-down Aronofsky, predispositions to cliche notwithstanding. The Wrestler isn't up there with Pi (still my favorite work of his) but it is worth your trouble, if only for Rourke. And I, for one, can't wait for Darren to unleash his Robocop.

addison said...

Oh dont get me wrong. Realism and accuracy isnt a prerequisite for me either. It's just he kind of hit the mark for a very specific niche of a sub-culture of which I am a part of, which I believe is what he also did with Pi. Requiem and The Fountain are the more universal themed works of his. I thought I appreciated Pi before but after talking with actual mathematicians who saw it, they had babble on and on about stuff I didnt get from the flick.

I guess its easy to say that when Darren focuses on a subject, he really does spend time acclimating himself in it much in the same way a character actor lives his role.

And yes, I have been stoked about the announcement of the Robocop remake.

dodo dayao said...

Fair enough and yeah, I get where you're coming from. I haven't seen his much-reviled Fountain in its entirety yet but with all the pile-on it's gotten, I'm inclined to come to it with a very open mind. And Aronofsky as antrophologist (I meant anthroplogy in my previous post, not archaeology, my bad) - - yeah, I can see it. If things had taken a very different turn in college, Requiem would have been about a subculture I was part of.