Movie Review: The Wrestler
By Matthew Huntley
December 31, 2008

This will not end well.

Randy "The Ram" Robinson knows exactly where he belongs, although the choice may not always be up to him. He's a professional wrestler, known to a legion of fans as one of the all-time greats, a force and spectacle who refuses to go down. But wrestling seems to be all that Randy knows. Even if he wanted to, he couldn't be anything else or fill any other role. He's come to accept the only time anybody knows or gives a damn about him is when he's inside the ring.

Outside the ring is another story, which is mostly where The Wrestler takes place. When the show is over and the ring is being disassembled, Randy (Mickey Rourke, in a terrific performance) goes through the same motions as any working man. He drives his beat-up van home to his trailer park and discovers his landlord has locked him out because of late rent payments. It's cold, dark and he's alone. Randy must spend the night in his van and he's awakened by screaming kids who want to wrestle him. This is one of the few pleasures he still has - the admiration of fans who still believe professional wrestling is real.

Randy's other pleasure comes from his evenings spent at Cheeks, a night club where he's a regular to a pole and lap dancer named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). Randy is used to Cassidy's exclusive attention and feels the need to protect her against other men. The two share more than just superficial sex acts. Deep down, Randy would like to "be" with Cassidy, but she has a strict policy of not dating customers. She also has a nine-year-old son and plans to move away to provide him a better life. Without directly saying it, she feels a relationship with Randy would get in the way.

If he could, Randy would probably wrestle until the day he dies, and who knows, he just might do that, but his life gets turned upside down when he has a heart attack and requires bypass surgery. The doctor tells him to stop injecting his body with all those "substances" and that he must quit wrestling. He can still exercise, but it must be monitored.

Of course, Randy doesn't let anybody within the wrestling circuit know about this. He quietly cancels his 20th anniversary match against his nemesis, "The Ayatollah" (Ernest Miller). Aside from signing autographs and posing for pictures, there isn't much else for Randy to do. Cassidy encourages him to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he left when she was a kid. At first, Stephanie thinks his return is just a way of asking her to take care of him.

We question Randy's intentions with Stephanie because a scene late in the film would indicate he's obviously not ready for the responsibility of being a father. In the back of his mind, Randy seems to have known this the whole time. Does he visit her because he's bored and has a lot of time on his hands, since he's no longer wrestling? Has his near-death experience opened his eyes to things that are more important? In a heartfelt scene on an abandoned boardwalk, he tells her, "I know I deserve to be alone. I just don't want you to hate me." But even when Stephanie responds to him, it's his life as a wrestler he seems to miss the most, not her. That the film doesn't necessarily answer the questions above or bring closure to their relationship makes it all the more intriguing.

Randy isn't a man who kids himself into thinking he enjoys anything outside his profession. He'd rather not work his daytime job at the local grocery store, where he carries in boxes of meat; and he definitely doesn't want to work behind the deli counter waiting on old ladies who insist on "more" then "less" potato salad (I've dealt with people like this before; it's not fun).

Wrestling is what drives him and we see how much Randy comes alive during the wrestling scenes, which are incredibly detailed and go on longer than we expect. Director Darren Aronofsky, shooting with a high film speed to infuse the images with a lot of rugged grain (a complement to Randy's body and character), illustrates the passion and happiness Randy feels when he's performing. These scenes will most likely become Randy's greatest memories.

I liked how the film lets us see what goes on in the world of professional wrestling. It's mindful of how wrestlers talk to each other before, during, and after the show, as well as the measures some of the men will take to incite the audience. Randy will go so far as to hide blades in his wrist bands and cut himself during the show. He knows the appearance of blood will enhance his fans' experience.

All this makes The Wrestler a most observant film. Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel take us fully into Randy's world and lifestyle, and we come to empathize and care for this fading athlete. He's not the most responsible of human beings, but he's got a big heart and he's always loyal to those who are loyal to him, with the exception of his daughter.

A brief montage at the beginning, full of old magazine clippings and sound bytes, tells us who Randy "The Ram" used to be - a man at the top of his game with a prosperous future ahead of him, or so it seemed. It's the rest of the film that tells us who he currently is. Twenty years later, he's sad and lonely. Everything he does is in the name of wrestling, probably because there's nothing else. It's easy to tell just by looking at his body and watching him prepare for a match: Randy has a weathered face, he always appears sore and aching, he dyes his hair, he shaves his arm pits, he injects himself with steroids and he frequents the tanning salon. At least one can't say he's not dedicated to his work.

Looking back on the film, Mickey Rourke is the perfect choice to play Randy. In many ways, Rourke is Randy. Think about it: 20 years ago, he too was at the peak of his career, but he left acting to become a boxer. He succumbed to many injuries such as a broken nose and cheekbone.

Appearance aside, Rourke embodies Randy. It wouldn't be enough for an actor to simply share a look and life similar to the character he's playing. Rourke returns to great form here and we're reminded why he was so highly praised in the 1980s. He rekindles his ability to transform himself into a character with utter conviction.

The Wrestler does not have a precise plot. It is a character study of a sad but devoted man. Randy is sad because he's no longer the man he used to be. He tries to deny the fact his body will eventually catch up with him. In one of film's most powerful shots, he looks around the American Legion and reflects on all the injured wrestlers who have resorted to signing autographs. Will it eventually come to this? Has it already come to this?

But the man remains devoted to his fans. For now, and as long as he's living, there will always be a place for him in the world of professional wrestling. And that's all Randy wants - a place to belong. The Wrestler reminds us, with truth and poignancy, that's all most of us want.