In Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, the camera studiously lingers over Randy “The Ram” Robinson as he prepares to go on stage before every match. Randy labors to get into costume and to prepare his aging body for yet another match with another B-grade wrestler, tugging gauze around pads to protect creaky elbows and knees. On other occasions, we see Randy injecting himself in the ass with steroids to keep his body toned. He even hides a small razor blade in his wristband to cut himself later in the match to give his fans–typically crowded into small community centers–an extra thrill. These physical elements are pushed to the extreme when a younger wrestler brings out a staple gun, stapling a $20 bill to his own head before filling Randy’s back and chest with staples.
It’s clear enough that Randy is used to better days and bigger celebrity. He was popular enough for his wrestling character to appear in a Nintendo-type video game, and Randy enjoys replaying his best-known match against “The Ayatollah,” a “bad-guy” rival from the 1980s. When Randy plays the game against a neighborhood boy, it’s clear that the child is humoring the adult, letting him win the match with his most famous move. When Randy is given a chance to renew the rivalry in a twentieth anniversary rematch, he sees it as a chance to get back some of the celebrity he has lost. This is put on hold when Randy suffers a heart attack after an especially violent match, and a doctor warns him that if he continues to fight, he could die.
Offstage, Randy is an amiable, if somewhat isolated lug, wrestling with the kids in his trailer park or practicing moves with fellow wrestlers (or demonstrating an impromptu move on a friendly store clerk), although he is completely alienated from his college-age daughter (played by Evan Rachel Wood, in a limited performance) and desperately seeking companionship from an aging stripper, Pam, who goes by the stage name of Cassidy. Like Randy (and presumably like most strippers), Pam adopts a stage persona to disatnce herself from her customers. Randy attempts to cross this somewhat ambiguous barrier, seeking Pam’s assistance in buying a gift for his daughter and then asking Pam for an after-hours drink. In this sense, both Randy and Pam are caught up in the mechanisms of performance and persona, Pam’s sleazy strip club a substitute for the run-down civic centers where Randy wrestles.
Some of these elements (the stripper with a heart of gold; the down-on-his-luck sports figure getting one last chance at the prize) could have easily turned The Wrestler into a set of cliches, but I think the film works, in part because of the physicality of Roarke’s performance and because of Tomei’s ability to bring some complexity to her role. Randy’s attempts to go “straight,” working a deli counter at a grocery store, also fascinate, especially when Randy recognizes that the counter itself is a kind of stage, and he is able to flirt and charm his audience, his customers.
I’d like to comment briefly about the ending but because this is a pretty big spoiler, I’m going to do so below the fold (and note that there are similar spoilers in the comments).
While I appreciated pretty much everything about the film, I did find the final shot, in which the screen goes completely black Sopranos style, to be a little frustrating. In a sense, of course, it’s not a bad ending, leaving at least some ambiguity about whether Randy dies in the ring while enjoying one last bit of fame, but given how memorably The Sopranos used an almost identical ending just a few months earlier, it seemed to undercut what the film was trying to accomplish. Curious to know what others thought…