I never thought I would say it, but Darren Aronofsky has officially made a film more depressing than Requiem for a Dream. Yeah, you read that right: The Wrestler is more heart wrenching and painful than Requiem for a Dream. I’ll explain how I came to this conclusion later; first let me lay out a few of the things that make The Wrestler one of the best films of 2008.
First of all, the acting and the characters. Much has been made about how art imitates life in this film. Mickey Rourke, a once-popular actor who fell out of favor with audiences and kind of cocked up his whole life, returns to the big screen to portray Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a once-popular professional wrestler who, 20 years later, is a loser who cocked up his life. It’s beautiful. And all the hype you heard is true. Mickey Rourke will make you weep like a baby with his performance. He plays a man who was once at the top of his game in a most masculine profession who now lives in a trailer park, works part-time in a grocery store, and keeps dreaming of the one final match that will put him back on top of the world. Randy has a hearing aid, heart problems, and a daughter who hates him. He’s terribly, terribly alone. Yet he manages somehow to maintain some dignity and optimism.
Meanwhile, Marissa Tomei plays Cassidy, an aging (i.e. over 30) stripper who maintains a strictly platonic relationship with Randy despite the fact that the two would make a great (if slightly skanky) couple. There’s a great scene which epitomizes Cassidy and Randy’s relationship: she’s giving him a private dance, gyrating nearly naked on his lap, while he talks casually about an upcoming rematch with another wrestler, “The Ayatollah”, that Randy is convinced will put him back in spotlight. The audience laughs because Randy barely pays attention to Cassidy’s perky breasts, but it shows that he doesn’t see her as a stripper, and she doesn’t see him as customer.
Which brings me to the second thing that was awesome about The Wrestler: the juxtaposition of Randy’s line of work and Cassidy’s line of work. Aronofsky spends plenty of time lingering on the scantily clad human body, both during scenes of Cassidy stripping and scenes of Randy wrestling. He dares us, forces us, to objectify them, and it’s impossible not to. Cassidy and Randy are essentially willing captives in a human zoo who invite us to watch them and who use their bodies to pay the bills. And they’re both getting too damn old to do it well. A particularly violent (we’re talking staple guns here) match lands Randy in the hospital, where his doctor warns him that any “strenuous” activity will kill him. On the flip side, a sleazy dude hassles Cassidy in the strip joint, asking, “How old are you?” As in Requiem, Aronofsky punishes his main female character with sexual humiliation and his main male character with physical pain and illness, adding a gendered component to Cassidy and Randy’s professions.
A final thing I really liked about this film was the “behind the scenes” scenes at the low-rent matches Randy wrestles in. You get to see men who are enemies in the ring buddying up to one another in the back rooms. Randy tells a younger wrestler, “Commie Rotten” (btw, LOVED that name), that he has talent and if he just keeps up with it, he can go places. Minutes later, Randy creams the dude in the ring in front of a cheering audience. Of course, it’s all fake. We ALL know that professional wrestling is fake. But to hear the wrestlers planning out their moves in the back, describing in detail every move of the fight, you realize that wrestling is an art, dammit! It’s on par with theatre or, hell, the ballet. These dudes know what they’re doing. They’ve trained, practiced, and plotted with the very men whom they will take down in the ring. The point is to put on a good show.
Ok, so The Wrestler was fucking amazing. But why did it rip out and shred my heart to tiny pieces in a way Requiem for a Dream did not? Well, first of all you pretty much know what’s going to happen in Requiem. You know the characters are going to meet horrible fates. I mean, come on, it’s a movie about heroin addicts. And not fun, sexy heroin addicts a la Trainspotting, but grimy, disgusting New York City dwelling burnout heroin addicts. You know that the movie isn’t going to end with the gang deciding to go to rehab together and talking about their feelings in group therapy. On the other hand, you don’t quite know what’s going to happen in The Wrestler. Let me just say this: the previews are a tad misleading. Plus, you actually like Randy. I found the characters of Requiem to be thoroughly unlikable. Yeah, I felt bad for them when they hit rock bottom, but I was never exactly “rooting” for them. Not true with Randy—you WANT him to achieve; you WANT him to connect with Cassidy and his estranged daughter; you hope he ends up back on top of the world. Randy’s a likable, three-dimensional, dynamic character who learns lessons and shit.
And that brings me to another point: The Wrestler actually has a glimmer of hope. Whereas the characters of Requiem are on a downward spiral to hell from the first moment they appear on screen, Randy actually has a pretty good shot at turning his life around.
To explain this “torture of hope” as it were, I’ll briefly describe the plotline that got to me the most. Partway through the film, Randy visits his estranged daughter Stephanie. At first Stephanie brushes him off, letting the audience know that Randy was kind of a shitty, deadbeat father. But eventually she warms up to him and the two spend the day together. Things look pretty good for Randy and Stephanie…until Randy forgets that he’s supposed to take Stephanie out to dinner one Saturday night and instead does coke with some slutty chick and ends up banging her doggy style (the slutty chick, not Stephanie). The next morning, Randy realizes what he’s done and rushes to Stephanie’s house to beg forgiveness. The scene that follows, in which Stephanie tells her dad that she wants him out of her life forever, will fucking kill your heart. It is awful…and made worse because Randy had the chance to redeem himself and he blew it. These glimpses of hope make the film all the more haunting in the end.
The Wrestler is an intense, violent film that will stick with you after you leave the theater. It has so many layers and such a complicated message and complicated characters, that you’ll pretty much be forced to think about it days after you’ve seen it. It’s not an easy film, it’s not a pretty film, but it’s a film that reminds you why movies are made and why we go see them.