Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
I have to admit that when I heard about this movie, I was immediately disappointed. As a wrestling fan, I would love to have seen some of the true-life stories of professional wrestling hit the big screen like wrestling biographies or real incidents that impacted the business forever. Prior to it’s rounds on the festival circuit, I wrote off Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler as a low-budget stab at the wrestling industry. Even with stars like Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei did not do it for me until the high number of favourable reviews came in. I made it a point to see this movie not as a wrestling fan but as a cinephile.
The movie begins with images of Rourke’s Ram Robinson character shown to have dominated the wrestling world during the 1980s. While the credits roll, announcers from various wrestling shows are giving play-by-play on Ram’s many triumphs leading to the biggest match of all time, a match against the evil Ayatollah (Ernest Miller), complete with Iranian gear, at the hallowed Madison Square Garden. As the opening credits end, we see Ram still wrestling 20 years later; not in a global wrestling federation, but at a small independent show attended by a few dozen people. Ram has fallen on hard times since his big matches of the eighties and he finds himself struggling to pay bills and make rent. He has difficulty finding a decent schedule at his real job as a warehouse worker for a large grocery store. His body is battered and bruised. Even though it makes his body weaker, he continues to wrestle since it is one of the few things that gives him joy in life. He also enjoys going to a local strip club and hanging around his favourite stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei).
After one brutal match which resembled a warzone more than a wrestling match, he collapsed in the locker room with a heart attack. Due to all the drugs and steroids pumping through his system, his body is compromised to the point that the doctor said that even one more match could cause another heart attack that may be fatal. Ram, realizing his career is over, tries to pick up the pieces that is his fragmented life. He attempts to begin a romantic relationship with Cassidy, who is not too well off herself (she is an aging exotic dancer who is also a single parent). He also tries to re-enter the life of his estranged daughter Samantha (Evan Rachel Wood). Things begin to turn around for Ram as his daughter begins to slowly let him back into her life and he beings to pick up steady work at the supermarket. That is every was turning around for him until one wild night with a bunch of wrestlers after a show leads to him losing almost everything. In a desperate move and against the advice from his doctor and Cassidy, he attempts to relive his previous glory by having one more match with the Ayatollah at one of the biggest independent shows in America.
Let’s get the bad out of the way early. The film has only one major flaw and that no explanation is given on how Robinson fell from the top of the wrestling world. It is assumed that injuries have taken his toll but considering that he didn’t seem to have anything that has impaired his ability to wrestle and that he seems to be wildly popular with wrestling fans young and old, it makes no sense for him to be treated as forgotten. It didn’t even have to be something major; perhaps one line saying that he broke his neck in the nineties and that no major promoter wanted to take a chance on a near cripple or that he was being blackballed in the industry for sleeping with the boss’s daughter. This justification for his demise would have made the story completely well rounded. Instead, it leaves a major plot hole that wrestling fans would notice right away.
Other than that, this film is great. All the performances are top notch as Rourke possibly gave his best performance ever. His gruff demeanor has a heartwarming side to it. Even as he continues to make dumb decisions, Rourke’s charisma keeps you cheering for Ram. Marisa Tomei was particularly good, but it is not comparable to her performance in My Cousin Vinny. There are some scenes in this movie that will make you start to get tears in your eyes (most notably the scene with Robinson and his daughter on the pier).
The story is well told and, for the unenlightened, the wrestling business is sort of explained at the beginning of the movie for those who don’t know about the performance art aspect of the sport or some of the terminology. Actually, one of the impressive things about the movie is that while the movie does quite a bit to expose the wrestling industry, it shows off the craft so well that even while watching the movie knowing that Rourke’s character is participating in a ballet of fake violence within a scripted movie, you still wince at some of the bumps taken. The ending is top notch and probably one of the I’ve seen in a long while.
Without giving much away, it uses an old trick that nine times out of ten would fail and people would be demanding a refund. With The Wrestler, not only does Aronofsky make it work, but thinking back on it there probably could be no better ending.
This post was originally published on this site on January 2, 2009. The original review is intact with some minor grammatical changes and film stills were added for this revision.