Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Wrestler

In the world of film culture, Darren Aronofsky’s been on a wild journey of opinion during his brief career. He went from the indie peaks of Pi, to the contentious respect of Requiem for a Dream, to the general rejection of The Fountain, and is now ready for a ‘comeback’ with The Wrestler. I think The Fountain was his weakest film, but I also feel like his first two films are so brilliantly made and affecting that it was always going to be tough to match them. The Wrestler is probably my least favorite of all his films to date, but that’s not a knock on it. This is a wonderfully realized story of people just doing their thing, it’s got a bit more of a real human core than any of his previous films, and when the film ended, I was satisfied, but also felt like I could have easily spent a while longer just hanging out with Mickey Rourke’s Randy the Ram. He was such a compellingly realized character that it almost felt like there was no reason his life need be contained in a two hour film.

It bothers me when people write the kind of reviews that say this film is a move beyond the “gimmickry” of his previous films. In film, every reality we see is a construct, be it the imitation reality of this film or the hyper-stylized world of Requiem for a Dream. In each case, the goal is to draw us into the characters’ world. In Requiem, that means using hyped-up editing and shooting techniques to get us in the mindset of addicts. There, the characters themselves are less important than their addiction. Addiction is the film’s main character, its hero that triumphs over all resistance. Filmed in the ultra-realist style of The Wrester, I don’t think the film would have been as affecting. But, in the case of The Wrestler, the outré elements are already there in the narrative. The film is about exploring this guy’s life, and it’s crazy enough that we don’t need editing techniques to get into his mind, we just need to see what he considers normal.

It makes sense that Mickey Rourke would get so much of the attention for the film. He is totally believable as this character who’s been through so much, and has no belief in himself outside of his wrestling. I was never a big wrestling fan as a kid, but a lot of my friends were, so I was familiar with the world, and it always surprised me how many old guys were still working years after what you’d imagine would be their prime. Randy isn’t good at anything else, and like all athletes, it’s hard to deal with the knowledge that you’re well past your prime with so much life to live. That’s the core connection between his story and Pam’s, knowing you’re at the point in your life where your body, which has been your livelihood, just can’t do it anymore. What do you do without it?

I think it’s tough for everyone to get old, and know that your best days are probably behind you. But, at least in most lines of work, you’re dealing more with your mind, so the more you learn, the better you should be. But, for Pam and Randy, it’s all downhill. What sort of jobs can you get with only stripper or wrestler on your resume? Randy finds himself working a deli counter, a far cry from entertaining a million people in Madison Square Garden.

But, at the same time, the most fun scene in the film is Randy’s embrace of that deli counter world, turning every order into a chance to have some fun. In that moment, you can see things maybe working out for him, but there’s this looming knowledge that it can’t always be like that. When Randy’s feeling bad, can he bring that same charm? During the “A little more,” “a little less” breakdown scene, we realize that there’s going to be days where he just can’t keep it up, can’t deal with the ghost of who he could have been. When he sticks his finger in the slicer just enough to nick it, he’s trying for the same pop he’d have gotten in the ring. Ever the showman, he can’t just quit, he’s got to get a reaction out of people, and that stunt certainly achieves his goal.

In the end, Randy decides that he’d rather live on the edge, and risk his health, for the charge he gets from the crowd. The film ends with a Sopranosesque ambiguous conclusion. Did Randy die up on the ropes, or did he soar in for a Ram Jam, pin the Ayatollah and win the match? I don’t think he died, that doesn’t really seem to jive with the low key film we just saw, but it’s certainly a valid interpretation. Rather, I think the film went out on a high note, Randy relived his greatest moment, it wasn’t MSG, he was a lot older, but on some level, he got that same feeling he’d been chasing for so long.

Watching this film makes it hard to believe that no one ever tackled a serious film on professional wrestling before. Besides the obvious visual energy, it’s such a weird insular world. If we could have myriad films on boxing, why not one or two on wrestling? There’s a lot of fun in the opening scenes as the crew plots out their matches, and also in the nods to Randy’s 80s heyday with his action figure and NES game.

The subplot with Randy’s daughter is also pretty interesting, mainly because of the way we’re deprived of any sort of resolution. Randy does a good thing, then messes it up, and never gets a chance to make it up to her. We see the film from his perspective, and want her to take him back, but from her perspective, it makes no sense. He can say all he wants about a desire to change, but his action doesn’t back it up. I though she might show up at that final match, but no, she just goes off and lives her life, another bridge burned for our hero.

Ultimately, this isn’t as innovative or dazzling a film as Requiem or Pi, but much like Rachel Getting Married earlier this year, it’s a joy to watch smply because of the way it captures the rhythms and interactions of everyday life. Mickey Rourke is justifiably praised for a fantastic performance, and perhaps the greatest compliment I can give is that when the film was over, I felt like I could have easily watched another hour of this guy just doing his thing. It was that well realized a world and that compelling a character.

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