The Wrestler

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…

10 Comments »

  1. Mike Everleth Said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    I thought it was a good ending for The Wrestler. I’d have to say my immediate reaction to the cut to black was I felt a little gypped, which I think is because after being so invested in the character and wanting to see him succeed to not get that winning payoff was a shock.

    However, reflecting back on the way they set up the story, to see Randy live through the match would have been unrealistic and to see him die would have made him look pathetic rather than heroic.

    I think with the ambiguous ending, whatever experience the viewer brings to the character will let him see Randy ultimately the way he wants. If you think he’s a chump, you’ll be glad he gets what he deserves. If you see him as heroic, that upbeat last image is how you’ll remember him.

  2. Chuck Said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    Yeah, I’m not sure if there was a way for Randy’s story to continue beyond that moment. I guess my frustration is that the fade (or cut?) to black had already been done so memorably in The Sopranos that it seemed to be a bit of rip-off.

    Still, I think the film could have been even more tragic–and possibly more interesting–if Randy was “forced” to live on after the bout (and the fade doesn’t rule out that possibility of course). I’m coming around to giving the ending a little more credit, though, based on your comment.

  3. G Said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

    Hey Chuck,
    I basically agree with your comments. I thought the film was more than a cliche collection, but not far enough from being that for my taste. I’d give it a B, better than most of what’s out there, but pretty familiar fare. It’s a shame that in our current independent film climate, people get so excited about this.

  4. Chuck Said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 7:42 pm

    Yeah, it’s a solid film, one that reminded me a lot of some of the great character-driven 70s films (Taxi Driver, Coming Home, Raging Bull), but it didn’t change my life.

    I’m wondering if the acclaim for the film is shaped by nostalgia for some of those films. It was almost impossible for me not to think about Raging Bull, in particular, while watching. Still, if there were more films like The Wrestler getting wider distribution, I wouldn’t complain.

  5. Joanna Said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 10:07 am

    since I haven’t been able to bring myself to see the film since I heard about the staple-gun, I’m glad to see somewhat write about it in terms other than Micky Rourke! is back!

  6. Chuck Said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

    Yeah, there is something more to the film than Roarke’s performance and the juxtaposition of Roarke and Tomei’s different kinds of performances is pretty interesting. Not life-altering, but if there were more films like it, I wouldn’t complain.

  7. A. Stefan Said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 10:20 pm

    Just saw the film tonight, on a Tuesday (a conscious attempt to live like it’s the weekend on a workday.)
    I liked it a lot. Rourke’s performance was a tour-de-force no matter how much other critics have harped on that or sung him praises. The character was a perfect fit for the comeback actor (a fortunate combination for the actor, audience and expert alike) and he did it well – he deserves the accolades.
    The motif of breaking through (or in) — explored from the off-limits trailer to the flinging open of the EMPLOYEES ONLY doors at the grocery store, to the off-limits doors that hide the large, moribund ballroom — was understated but effective in conveying the characters’ aggressive yet half-assed attempts to break through in their own lives and reach out to whatever may lie beyond the walls or ropes of the stages they condemned themselves to.
    I have not, in a long time, seen a film with such ability to reveal the soars and bones and sweat of what it means to be human as fiercely as The Wrestler.
    I think that Evan Rachel Wood’s character was slimly written but that her performance was very palpable.

  8. Chuck Said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 10:49 pm

    Good observation about the various thresholds. The two sequences where he walks down the long passageways–once in the gym, once in the grocery store–work well to establish Randy’s need for a stage.

    Wood probably did about as much as she could with that character. By the way, word on the street is that she will be playing onstage in North Carolina (Raleigh, I think) in a Shakespeare production.

  9. Jim Said,

    March 21, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    Chuck,

    What I didnt like about the ending is for a different reason. I feel artistically, that the Bruce Springsteen song should have started during the match at some point and start to drown out the crowd noise. Maybe a few quick flashbacks of Randy’s memories as well, in slow motion.

    Most people bolt right at the credits and its a shame that Bruces song didnt get more attention in the movie, with some strong visuals. That song really hits home for Rourkes character and again as I say , it should have been a bigger part of the movie.

    As far as the way the ending is left open to ones opinions….I guess thats ok. Some people may want to feel that Randy overcame the bad heart and fought on, like he did his whole life. Others may want to imagine that was his last top rope plunge. Either way, it was a strong story. My uncle is a retired wrestler in his 70′s from the Bruno Sanmartino days. He lived a lot of that in the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s.

  10. Chuck Said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 8:56 am

    Jim, missed your comment initially, but I think you’re right about the use of Springsteen’s song, which comes across as an afterthought and not part of the movie itself. Given the jarring ending, I’m guessing most people at least heard the opening of Bruce’s song, but you’re right that we are conditioned as viewers to leave as credits begin to scroll.

    The ending is open to interpretation (whether Randy survives or not), and I think that’s fine, but you’re right that aesthetically there were better options for making that point.

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