What a sad movie. Darren Aronovsky’s The Wrestler is one of the great movie character profiles I have ever known. Randy “The Ram” Robinson, the character played by Mickey Rourke in a correctly much heralded performance – is a country song hero with split ends and steroids. I guess it is a useful companion piece to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa. Both are stories about has-beens kicking on through life – or at least explorations of the same theme. Rocky of course was a champion – saving American freedom against Communism no less – and when the last Rocky film opens, is trading off his name. There is pathos, but he has at least stopped trying to chase his glory.
The Ram, on the other hand, is still wrestling. And Aronovsky shows us the matches. As a connoisseur of pro wrestling at various times in my life (indeed, the WWE Raw’s in The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin’s heyday took on inordinate importance in my home), I knew all the tricks, how the plots were determined, how the guys work with each other to try to manage their pain successfully. Jesse Ventura tried to unionize the wrestlers at stuntmen (if you believe him) – and it makes a lot of sense. Yes, they take precautions to avoid death, but does that make the fall of the ladder any less “real”? Aronovsky gets this world down cold. I am not sure how accurate the details are specifically about the locker room politics – but the matches are wholly convincing. There may be stunt doubles for Rourke, but you don’t notice them – and the movie gets the blading (how wrestlers get those “crimson masks!”), how they coordinate stunts and falls. The Ram is an old pro – this is the place where he knows what he is doing. One of the matches goes well, but another doesn’t (a plot detail which I will describe no more, aside from saying that it sets off the key relationships the rest of the way).
By showing the matches in such detail, Aronovsky and Rourke can create a stark, bold line between the world he knows – pro wrestling – and the world he cannot handle – the rest of the world. The wrestling scenes and grace The Ram has, such as it is, are almost thrilling. It is neat to see the wrestlers in action, and I found myself cheering a little when they got to the top of the ladder – and it is a striking contrast to the scenes with his estranged daughter, where The Ram tries to do the right thing, to atone for sins in the past, where the pain on the screen is so heartbreaking that it is hard to watch. The charisma the Ram shows in the ring does not translate to his pathetic life after the lights go out – where we basically never see his home (or even if he is has one), and where his only place for entertainment is a local strip joint. The casual interaction with other performers in wrestling is a contrast to his awkward attempts to think of a relationship with Cassidy (not the character’s real name – played by that embodiment of goodness Marisa Tomei), or to understand how much their professions have in common.
What is most admirable about these characters and this movie, is the understated scope. There is not really much of a plot – just dropping in on the lives of these characters. Rourke’s performance of course stands astride the whole thing, and he creates a man who is sympathetic – a good man in a hard trade, but a good man who has trouble avoiding mistakes. Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood as his daughter, and all his colleagues in has-been wrestling are understated. When the country song comes to an end, we have a sense of how it might end or how it has to end, and Aronovsky has a perfect final shot. The Ram will haunt me for a while.