One Trick Pony: Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler
"Have you ever seen a one trick pony in the field so happy and free?
If you've ever seen a one trick any then you've seen me."
- Bruce Springsteen "The Wrestler"
Sports stars have a weird lifespan. Their worth is based on how well they perform physically until somewhere in their thirties, when their body starts to break down and the public loses interest. They spend half their lives bathing in their fame and wealth, then the second half figuring out what to do without any of that. This change is even harder for professional wrestlers than most athletes. The amount of abuse these men put their body through is much more than any other sport, but the level of fame they can reach is much lower. In The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky takes a look at a professional wrestler trying to figure out what to do with the second half of his life.
Mickey Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a wrestler whose prime was twenty years ago. Today, he’s surviving off of local wrestling work and a side gig at a grocery store. This subsistence living is put in jeopardy when he has a heart attack and he’s told he needs to stop wrestling or he could possibly die. In this role, Rourke is superb. In the first five minutes of screentime, in which he’s sitting in a chair then walking to his trailer, you fully understand what this character puts himself through. He walks, talks, and sits just like someone who’s spent the last twenty years having the crap beat out of him. This might have come from his years as an amateur boxer in his younger days, but Rourke heightens his physicality to emphasize what pain he’s endured.
The camera follows Rourke in a way that makes the film feel especially raw and personal. In the ring, it’s all closeups. Aronofsky isn’t afraid to show the mechanics of the mostly-planned fight, but he makes sure that the audience really feels every hard hit The Ram takes. Professional wrestling is fake yes, but the punches aren’t. In a hardcore match, we see Randy get staples, barb-wired and thrown onto a ground that’s covered in glass. This is intercut with shots of him being stitched-up in the locker-room. We see a staple go in, then we see the staple get pulled out. The look on Randy’s face, and also on my own, was one of pain and possibly regret. Is all of this pain really worth it?
To Randy, it is. He sees his wrestling as a sacrifice for his audience. In his mind his audience are the only people that truly love him. In his retirement, he tries to build relationships with a few people in his life: a dancer he’s falling for (Marissa Tomei) and a daughter he’s ignored for too long (Evan Rachel Wood). Both of them seem to turn him away, though. With his daughter, he wins her over after she’s initially skeptical, then lets her down after getting drunk and sleeping through their lunch plans. This storyline, though a bit predictable, has some truly great scenes and an outstanding monologue from Rourke in which he apologizes for abandoning his daughter. It’s a truly beautiful sequence, in which they’re exploring an abandoned shoreline where there used to be a carnival while trying to rebuild what used to be a good relationship.
The real emotional driving force for Randy is Pam, or Carissa as she’s known at her job. Tomei is outstanding here, earning, along with Rourke, a well deserved Oscar nomination. Rourke and her have a real chemistry, but she does a great job showing the tension she feels between her feelings for him and the responsibility she feels to not date her patrons. Pam has achieved the work-home balance that Randy has never been able to perfect, but over the course of the movie she breaks down and decides to be open to this. It’s easy for this kind of role to be written as just alternating between emotions, but the writer (Robert D. Seigel) makes sure to explain her motivations, and Tomei finds a great middle-ground in which she can show how she feels without acting on those emotions.
Darren Aronofsky’s movies tend work around the theme of sacrifice and commitment to craft, whether that craft is ballet (Black Swan), math (Pi) or wrestling. In The Wrestler, he looks at someone who’s forced to give up the craft he’s devoted his life to and then has to try to rebuild the things he’s sacrificed for it. The question is if the affection of the crowd is worth the sacrifice, and for Randy, it is.