Monday, February 16, 2009

Film Review--The Wrestler

The Wrestler
directed by Darrin Aranofsky,
written by Robert D. Siegel
starring Micky Rourke, Marisa Tomei Evan Rachel Wood, Ernest Miller

Two people struggle to come to terms with the ravages of age and the feeling that life has become increasingly more difficult at every turn.

Robin Ramzinski known to his legions of fans as Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke) used to be a wrestling champion who once fought a match against the Ayatollah (Miller) at Madison Square Garden in front of 20,000 fans. Twenty years on he’s picking up weekend matches on the local circuit while working part time unloading at a grocery store. Pam, known as “Cassidy” to her customers at a local strip club, is no longer as desirable as a lap dancer as she once was. She’s a thirty plus mother of an eight year old boy and she knows instinctively that she needs to get out of the game of selling the illusion of sex for cold hard cash.

Randy is one of Cassidy’s regulars and she insists on treating him like a customer because it’s the law of the club that she is prohibited from fraternizing with him. She tries to cement this idea in Randy’s head but he refuses to listen. He convinces her to have a beer with him and they share a brief kiss. It’s handled with great delicacy and comes across as utterly significant. It clearly illustrates the difficult situation Cassidy finds herself in because she wants more but is too afraid to admit it to herself. Citing the rules of the club is just a means of attempting to use policy to protect herself from getting hurt. The tension between these two characters is intense for the duration of the film.

The film hinges on these two performances and both of them are total daggers straight through the heart. Mickey Rourke possesses a massive presence that resonates throughout the film and it isn’t necessarily related to his physicality. Randy is an enormous person inside, completely separate from the body which threatens to break down at every turn. Indeed, Rourke has created here a character who has fallen so far down that he’s not sure where he needs to stand to start climbing back up. A rematch is scheduled with the Ayatollah and Randy considers this the first step back up to the top. It’s not beyond the possible but in viewing his body it’s difficult to imagine that it could ever hold up long enough to make the climb. Especially after he suffers a heart attack and is forced to undergo a bypass surgery. He is told not to wrestle ever again. He is told to stop taking steroids.

Mickey Rourke gives a heartbreaking performance that is consumed with a brutal silence that resonates in every frame. He makes the audience feel every cut, every gouge, and every other wound that is inflicted upon his flesh. There is a very real sense of the transforming nature of pain, of suffering, as it is experienced in real time. Rourke’s work in this film is as subtle as it is imposing as his character battles both his opponents and the tyranny of time. Admittedly, I was near tears for the first half of the film and this is the result of the way Randy carries himself throughout the early part of the film. It’s devastating to watch his body move so agonizing slow as it’s clear he’s enduring considerable pain that he suffers because of his untrammeled marriage to the ring, the glory, and the experience of being lauded by his current fans many of whom remember what it was like when he was wrestling for serious money. Rourke captures the breadth of Randy’s insistence to return to the ring time and again knowing the impact it is having on his health. He makes us believe in Randy’s need for this, his addiction to the accolades that still pour over him like light whenever he enters the ring. They still cheer for him and such a response provides him with a boost that he can get nowhere else. Life has let him down but the ring still remains a place in which he can be appreciated mainly for the stallion he once was and by rights will never be again.

Randy embodies the once great performer who has been reduced to a shadow of the totemic presence he once inflicted on the circus of primacy which informed the ring in which he stood supreme. His fall from the pinnacle of greatness has been gradual and almost imperceptible. It has landed him in a small trailer working a job he hates. After deciding to back out of the rematch with the Ayatolla he agrees to take on extra hours working the deli counter at the grocery store. We follow Randy until he stands on the precipice before entering the deli and the soundtrack of the film plays applause. We view his work at the deli as something of a crushing blow. He is humiliated and it’s clear the film wants us to view this experience as uniformly degrading to such a man who once commanded the allegiance of tens of thousands of rabid fans to whom he was an icon of terrible strength and skill. It’s a mighty step down and one can sense the frustration on Randy’s face as he dishes up ham and pesto salad from behind the imprisoning counter. Yet he is able to put on a happy little face which only proves to be more devastating.

The film presents a wide array of contemporary Professional wrestlers who provide the film with authenticity. It’s humorous to watch the wrestlers who have been pitted against each other back stage going over their game plan with one another for the audience. One such match is exquisitely difficult to watch as it includes staple guns, barbed wire and broken glass. Randy is particularly wounded by the barb wire and it leaves a nasty gash above his stomach. It’s a reminder of the insatiable desire for barbarism and the desperation of the wrestlers to remain in the public’s eye if only for just one more match.

After Randy suffers a heart attack he is faced with an almost impossible dilemma. The thought of giving up wrestling is abhorrent to him because the prospect of life outside the ring fills him with
such dread. He simply cannot bear the fact that he might be prevented from doing the one thing that has ever brought him joy. Cassidy convinces Randy to seek out his daughter Stephanie (Wood) after having been absent from her life for many years. At first Stephanie is hesitant and exceedingly angry. On the second visit he convinces her to spend the afternoon with him. They agree to meet the following Saturday but Randy does coke and gets laid, waking up after the agreed upon meeting time. He goes to Stephanie’s home late that evening and is immediately chastised by her. She tells him their relationship is over and that she never wants to see him again.

Marisa Tomei plays a decisively strong and fiercely independent character who is really two people. She is the devoted mother who cares for her son and does everything a good mother ought to. She is also a stripper who grinds on a pole and sells herself cheaply to any man with enough cash to order her to move in a most specific manner. She insists that the two selves do not bleed into one another but it’s impossible to believe that this is indeed true. There is too much sadness in Cassidy eyes that is slowly lifted over time as she works toward pulling herself up and out of the quagmire. It’s a tribute to Tomei’s work here that she doesn’t allow Cassidy to fully collapse in on herself. Cassidy makes great strides to extricate herself from her prison and it’s profoundly moving to watch her make the effort.

Evan Rachel Wood gives a startling performance as Stephanie. She’s not in the film very often but one gets a legitimate sense of her character’s rage as she faces the father she has all but declared as dead. All the promises broken, all the shattered hopes, are written clearly on Wood’s face. In many ways it’s a terrifying performance because it expresses with clarity how wrong Randy has been regarding his obligations to his flesh and blood. Stephanie has suffered Randy’s lack of commitment to her and Wood brings this all to bear with her work in this film.

Overall, this film consistently pulls the rug out from under the viewer. Emotional truths are handled with conviction but they never come across precisely as expected. This is a daring film that captures all of the wrecked vitality of its two leads without ever succumbing to sentimentality. These characters are cruelly realistically and their relationships are gratifyingly complicated. There are no easy answers in this film and the final sequences contain mysteries they maintain straight up to the end. This film offers portraits of individuals who all possess a very real pain that afflicts them with tremendous pressure much of the time. Yet, there is also much more here and this is the product of the performers who lay themselves out in some of the most naked performances I have ever seen. This is a raw, difficult film that comes off as exceedingly honest, hard, and supremely forthcoming.

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