In one scene from The Wrestler, there is a response from Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) when after just having bypass surgery following a heart attack, he is told by his doctor that he must stop putting steroids into his system and can only perform mild exercise. It is as much bemusing as it is heartbreaking: “But Doc, I’m a professional wrestler!” The significance of that assertion to Randy’s story of a once great wrestling icon, now twenty years later relegated to Community Hall matches and unsatisfying signing appearances, is cemented by it being said with such conviction and pride by the actor. He is a wrestler. That is what he does. That is what he knows. Rourke embodies Ram and all his flaws in such a sincere way; the authenticity of his colossal performance raises the bar for realism.
Unconventional director Darren Aronofsky has shaped a documentary-like film with The Wrestler, and like the central performance is unflinching, gritty and driven by severe emotion. It is debateable whether the character of Randy is a likeable one, but you are not really asked to choose anyhow. We follow him through his present day-to-day life and the film’s major achievement is that you cannot help but empathize with him – as if it was real life. As if The Ram is a wrestler in our world. In that sense too, the film avoids sentimentality but still manages to be profoundly affecting and at times, painful to watch.
It is clear Mickey Rourke has drawn on the parallels between his real-life erratic career and Randy’s. No doubt it has helped the performance, and it’s a tribute to our director for pushing the actor to dig deep. The reward is a fascinating, hugely immersive journey regardless of Ram’s motives, outcomes or choices. Evan Rachael-Wood and Marisa Tomei complete the roles of Randy’s estranged daughter and aging stripper cum-love interest respectively. Both shine in their emotional responsibility, but Tomei’s Cassidy, whose story mirrors Randy’s in many ways, is finely convincing.
The deft cutting is reminiscent of earlier Aronofsky films, Pi and Requiem for a Dream, and works well here to keep the pace brisk and break up potentially tedious dialogue-free scenes, as well as adding energy to ones such as when Randy is working behind a supermarket Deli counter. A subtle, precise acoustic score from Clint Mansell blends appropriately amongst the eighties hair metal Randy holds so dear, ultimately confirming that on a technical level, The Wrestler is scarcely flawed. The wrestling matches themselves flow with authenticity. It’s a credit to both Rourke and Aronofsky for not flinching during the handful of fights shown – making them feel real was essential, and they‘ve completely succeeded.
Exploring a relatively uncharted world in cinema, scriptwriter Robert D. Siegel gives us material that on the surface does resemble a clichéd story, but praise must be given to the eye for detail towards the underground wrestling circuit he demonstrates. It effectively kills any chance of formula pulling us out of Randy’s psyche of frustration and eventual acceptance of what he believes his life to amount too. Struggling to complete any relationship he has besides the ones he shares with his loyal fans, it’s seeing Randy risking his life trying to hold on to that what makes him feel human the most, which is genuinely heart-breaking. It’s also what make The Wrestler an unmissable film.