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The Wrestler: Love Letter from the Top Rope

Posted by goldwriting on December 31, 2008

wrestler This is definitely going to hurt me more than it does you.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

I still can still see myself, sitting on that brown tattered couch in the living room, wondering how much change has found its way into the holes in those old cushions. I held the remote control in my tiny hand and flipped constantly, trying to battle the onslaught of commercials for break-dancing tutorial videos and Nancy Reagan pleading for me to “Just Say No”. Very few things would make the flipping stop or could make me endure the advertising interruptions, and for many years the chief among those was none other than professional wrestling. What many people refer to as a fake sport is in reality nothing different than live theater specializing in acrobatics, fight choreography and mythological storytelling. These men, and now many women, personify the characteristics of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong and heart vs. strength. It may be dramatically simplified, but what goes on inside the squared circle week after week is at its core morality embodied by living, breathing warriors.

The Wrestler is the story of one such warrior, Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson. He once was at the top of the mountain and idolized by legions of fans around the world, but twenty years have passed since those days in the bright, bright spotlight and now the crowds have thinned and the venues have fallen farther away from the stadiums of his past. The effects of the constant battery to his body, from drinking, drugs and the matches themselves, have left Randy in a fight for his own livelihood. With a broken relationship with his daughter and a spark fluttering between him and a local stripper named Cassidy, he has to make a choice if the “real” world away from the cheers and jeers is worth losing the “fake” world inside the ring.

Directed and produced by Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler is much more than a raw tale of a broken man. This is a love letter to the stars of today and those of the past inside the wrestling world, known to many as “sports entertainment”. The film describes with painful acuity the reality of life behind the curtain and away from the crowds. The players behind the mythic characters deal with physical pain on an almost constant basis; bones broken, necks sprained, skin shredded. And on rare and terrible occasions, lives are lost in pursuit of giving the fans one more big pop. In crafting the fictional tale of Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, Darren let audiences who might not ever watch a regular professional wrestling match in their life take a peek into how much dedication and passion these people have for the entertainment which so many people choose to write off as silly and childish. The film is shot honestly with a good deal of handheld camerawork, giving it a subliminal sense of documentary feel. It also jumps around somewhat, skipping beats of time, but that only lends more to the impression that the camera has been around this collapsing goliath for hours and hours on end, searching for those windows into his thoughts.

To get into the soul of a person, many say you have to go through the eyes and this pair happens to belong to the enigmatic Mickey Rourke. Like Sly Stallone enveloping the beef pounding fury of Rocky, Rourke silently struggles with the aching for some sort of connection and the stubborn pull of the spotlight, even as dim as it has gotten for him. It truly will go down as one of the most inspired casting decisions of this year. Rourke was a boxer for a number of years and was four fights away from a major title fight when his doctor told him to quit due to major neurological damage he had already sustained. This wasn’t the role he was born to play, it was the role he was beaten into playing beautifully. Who knows how many of the other story points in Randy’s life mirror those in Rourke’s, but very few people can disappear into a character the way Rourke does here. In recent years, I would say Heath Ledger was the only other person I have seen able to accomplish this feat on a regular basis. Holding strong on either side of this tragically pure performance were Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. Tomei plays the aforementioned stripper, Cassidy, who also has to keep the line straight between a world of fantasy and the real world back home with her nine-year-old boy and a driver’s license under the name Pam. She lets go in a major way and dives deep into the pool of necessity to show where Cassidy comes from and why she does what she does. Wood plays Randy’s daughter Stephanie, who has been estranged from him for an unknown period of time. She only gets a small handful of scenes, but two of those rarities prove to be the best in the entire film. Wood has rarely strayed from the emotionally tortured characters, especially after her intensely powerful turn at sixteen-years-old in the indie drama, Thirteen. She is now the “it” girl for edgy and troubled young female roles, but we’ll have to wait and see if she can parlay that into playing those same women when she gets older.

In the end what Aronofsky made is a dedication to all those people who live behind their masks and the trials and tribulations they suffer through to make someone else’s day just a little bit better. It’s not wholly selfless; they all get paid for the masks they wear, but to many the money becomes secondary to the rush of the outside world stepping into their carefully crafted fantasy.

Recommendation: For the wrestling fans out there, this is a must see. It truly serves as a validation of your viewership to each and every pay-per-view match. For the rest of the audience, the strength of Rourke’s performance might just make you think a little next time you flip by the WWE on Saturday morning (that’s the World Wrestling Entertainment for those even farther outside the know).

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