It seems appropriate that Bruce Springsteen wrote a song for the end credits of The Wrestler, since the entire movie feels like a Nebraska era Springsteen song come to life. The entire movie is drenched in sorrow and defeat, and you squirm in your seat as you watch characters that have no hope of ever getting out of the swamp that is their life. The town is bleak, and so is the outlook. It’s about as sunny and cheerful as Darren Aronofsky’s earlier smile-fest, Requiem for a Dream. Thanks for the pick me up, Darren, I’m going to go kill myself now, but kill myself in the best possible way.
Mickey Rourke is a grizzled train wreck of a human being. Holy shit he looks grim. I guess having your face caved in during an ill-fated, ill-advised professional boxing career will do that to a guy. Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, nee Robin Ramzinski, a Rowdy Roddy Piper-esque professional wrestler who was once popular enough to sell out Madison Square Garden for his legendary, and career defining match against “The Ayatollah.” His signature move, by the way, is amazingly called the “Ram Jam.” I just thought you would like to know.
Predictably, the “Ram” has fallen on hard times. He works part time moving boxes at a local grocery store where the boss gives him a rash of shit, and on the weekends he travels around the New Jersey area plying his trade in small shows at high school gyms and such, dreaming of making it back to the big time, but just barely getting by on the few dedicated fans who actually remember his name. It just doesn’t pay to have dreams in a movie like this; it is only going to get you in trouble. In his spare time, Randy gets locked out of his trailer, sleeps in his van, and pines for Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an aging stripper at a local titty bar called “Cheeques.” I think Marisa Tomei was put on this earth to play the role of an aging stripper that loves eighties buttrock.
Randy has a hardcore match with the “Necro Butcher,” that involves a barbwire wrapped crutch, lots of broken glass, thumb tacks, a prosthetic leg, and a ladder. Did I mention the staple gun? Yeah, there is a staple gun. Necro Butcher ends up with a five-dollar bill stapled to his face. The fight scene plays out mixed with a doctor digging various detritus out of Randy’s flesh after the match. The scene is incredible, and effective, and also inexplicably gory. It isn’t horror movie, arm getting hacked off with a chainsaw gore; it is very real and uncomfortable gore, the kind of gore that makes you cringe. The couple directly in front of me in the theater got up and walked out during this scene.
After he has been thoroughly cleaned out, the Ram goes to take a shower, only to have a heart attack on the way. The years of hard living and steroid abuse have taken their toll on Randy, and the doctor tells him that being a professional wrestler is no longer a good idea. With barely a whimper, the wrestling career of Randy “The Ram” Robinson comes to an unceremonious end.
Having lost the only thing he knows, not sure of what to do, or where to go, Randy goes to Cassidy, the only person who is ever nice to him. She tells him that at times like these you need to be around family. He tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). It seems to go well for a minute, but then he inevitably screws the pooch. At one point, broken down and in tears, Stephanie tells him that he is “a living, breathing, fuck-up.” That pretty much sums it up.
At a show, as a spectator, Randy finds some of the love that he is unable to attain from either Cassidy or his daughter, and decides that the only place he ever has, or ever will belong, is in squared circle, under the bright lights, in front of an adoring crowd of drunken wrestling fans. They are the only family he has ever had. They are the only ones who have ever truly loved him. He then makes the generally reckless decision to participate in a match that celebrates the twentieth anniversary of his legendary duel with the Ayatollah (played by professional wrestler Ernest “the Cat” Miller), who now owns a car dealership in Arizona.
Cassidy finally accepts the love Randy tries to give her. She tells him as he is about to walk through the curtain into the spotlight. It is, of course, too late. He has to go to his people, to the one place that he has never been hurt. She is unable to watch.
Randy gives a stirring speech to the packed auditorium, and despite the obvious troubles with his heart, the match goes on. He climbs to the top of the turnbuckle, salutes the crowd, and leaps into the air, delivering one final “Ram Jam.”
Mickey Rourke is perfect. This is one of those roles that couldn’t have been anyone else. He essentially lived this life, and it translates to the screen like nothing else he’s ever done. There aren’t any of the visual gimmicks that abound in Aronofsky’s other films. He took the script from Robert D. Siegel (former editor of The Onion, oddly enough), and told a straight forward, gritty, and powerful story about people searching for love and belonging, only to be swept out to sea by the inevitable, inescapable current.
One side note, the music is awesome. There are songs from Accept, Quiet Riot, Slaughter, Cinderella, and Ratt, among others. Axl Rose even did something cool for once in his shit eating life. He gave the filmmakers the rights to use “Sweet Child o’ Mine” for free, because they didn’t have the budget for it. See, even Axl Rose is redeemable.