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January 23, 2009

6

Movie Review – The Wrestler (2008)

by GEOFF GEIB

After the almost absurdly earnest The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky’s latest confection marks both a continuation of this most admirable filmmaking sensibility and a departure with a film where every character is blessed/cursed with a healthy dose of self awareness in a world that hardly rewards such a trait.

Some films are so brilliantly made it’s hard to notice the cracks in the facade. The recent Ridley Scott thriller Body of Lies perfectly encapsulates this sentiment with the amount of time the lead characters spend on their cell phones bordering on the ridiculous, but without ever compromising the urgency of the narrative. The Wrestler is not as well made, its structure appearing more as a series of segments than a well executed plot, yet the film is deeply affecting, and so while the flaws are more readily identifiable, they fade just as quickly from memory.

Mickey Rourke, in a life-imitating-art role, plays Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, a professional wrestler whose career peaked twenty years earlier, but despite numerous and demonstrable indicators to find another line of work, continues to wrestle in tiny arenas on the independent circuit. He relives his former glory on a daily basis, but always with the constant reminder of the toll such a life has exacted.

The movie contains fine performances all around, especially Marisa Tomei delivering a strong turn as The Ram’s female doppelganger, but The Wrestler hangs its hat on the performance of Mickey Rourke and he responds by delivering a magnificent portrayal of a supremely complex and tragic character. The sheer physicality of the role is astonishing, but it’s Rourke’s ability to play the quiet moments with alternating moments of dignity, regret, humor and sadness that elevates the film.

There is a great scene when, desperate for company, Randy invites a neighborhood kid to come play video games in his trailer. The video game is, of course, an antiquated wrestling game pitting a pixilated Ram battling his greatest foe, the Ayatollah. The scene highlights how layered and intricate the lead character is, for here we have a man who is keenly aware of where he fits in the world but powerless to make any changes necessary to better his life. The moment could have been excessively melancholy (indeed the entire film plays out against such a bleak backdrop it constantly threatens to bring the entire film down) but Rourke refuses to allow Randy to be a one-dimensional object of pity.

One of my favorite films in recent memory, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, is always raised in my estimation when I consider one of the last lines in the movie uttered by Bill Murray, in which, surrounded by everyone important in his life, he admits his favorite age was eleven and a half, and we realize how true that really is, that his every action in the film is one of a child, and it is both profoundly sad and elating. The Wrestler ends with a shot of Rourke in the ring that doesn’t redefine our understanding of the film, but it reinforces and expresses beautifully just how glorious and tragic this character’s life has been, and let me tell you, rarely have I seen a better way to end a film.

4 stars


Read more from Geoff Geib, Movie Reviews
6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jeff Faulkner
    Jan 23 2009

    I feel this was the best movie I have seen in ’08. First of all, you would never know Arononfsky directed it. Plus the performances from Evan Rachel Wood and Tomei fill the film with air that Rourke breathes in and and exhales away effortlessly. This movie really, really affected me. Hardly a flaw in my opinion.

  2. Tom
    Jan 23 2009

    i’m pretty excited about this one, hoping it’ll feature quite high on my eventual top 10.

  3. miriam
    Jan 26 2009

    I found this a completely compelling character study with, as you say, a breathtaking final image. Tomei’s character provides the contrast of a person who keeps her performance life strictly separate from her private ‘real’ life, though we don’t see enough of her to know how well that’s worked for her. We get a hint of what the Ram’s life would have been like if he’d been able to do that in the tentative reunion with his daughter and the zest he invests in his first day working the counter in the deli. But it’s life outside the wrestling world that isn’t real for him. I thought I was going to see a sad story about a washed-up wrestler and the goofy world of pro-wrestling. But the heroic fidelity to the truth of his life as he’s created it, the courage in following those choices to their logical conclusion does make his life “glorious and tragic” and this a marvelous film.

  4. Helen
    Feb 13 2009

    An excellent film. I agree completely with your estimation of Rourke’s and Tomei’s performances, and the contribution they make to the film’s success.

    I was fascinated by the true/false duality that defines the Ram’s life. Wrestling in the ring is obviously fake- choreographed fights with a predetermined outcome. But, at the same time, real- physically demanding moves that draw real blood and cause real injuries. That dualism is a metaphor for the character’s life in and out of wrestling. The Ram has a “real life” as people would normally define it: a name, job, lover, daughter, all kept separate and apart from the ring. That real life has been irrevocably harmed by his overriding determination to continue wrestling, his total commitment to playacting in the ring. Yet by investing himself totally, body and soul, into his life as a wrestler for so many years, he has made that life into his true life, and his “real life” into a hollow play.

  5. Tom
    Feb 13 2009

    ^beautifully put.

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