WARNING: This review contains spoilers!
There are certain fundamental aspects of American culture in the 1980s that I found to be, for lack of a better word, repugnant. The crassness of commercialism was everywhere, politics went straight to hell as Reaganites celebrated American Right-wing supremacy, music fans suffered through the pangs of the glam rock movement and the superficiality and the hedonistic excesses that it embraced, and the yuppies on Wall Street were idealized as models of success. Yet from this era of extremities (how much coke can we snort and how many babes can we lay?) and contradictions (who knew that stock brokers listened to anti-capitalist punk rock?) came a newfound understanding of our society on a whole. Sure, sex, drugs, rock and roll, money, fame, and all that goes with it, were parts of that collective understanding. The fact is that America had become shallow and we sought sanctuary in escapist fantasies, whether that fantasy was the glamour of the celebrity lifestyle, the exaggerated masculinity of the action movie star, the materialistic euphoria of the shopping mall, the taboo sexual allure of the strip clubs, or the violent spectacle of professional wrestling. Were the ‘80s a simpler, more innocent time? Hell, no. We, as a country, were just a simpler, more naïve, more immature culture. As it seemed that the nuclear clock was counting down to an imminent war between the U.S. and Russia, many citizens retreated into an unabashed self-indulgence. If you’re going to die, then you might as well live life to the fullest, right? The ‘80s were all about decadence, self-destruction, and the self-enforced delusion that life was just on never-ending party. All in all, the ‘80s weren’t exactly a time of meditation or introspection… or were they?
Director Darren Aronofsky (π and Requiem for a Dream) has created a film set in the present that looks back on the ‘80s with a bittersweet nostalgia. Aronofsky examines the strange, inexplicable appeal of the “white trash” culture: the trailer parks, the fascination with professional wrestling, the allure of strippers and groupies, alcohol and drug abuse, and the estranged relationships between dysfunctional parents and their resentful children. And somehow, Aronofsky avoids stereotyping or condemning this splintered element of American culture and portrays his characters with great sensitivity and even affection.
Aronofsky’s last film The Fountain, which I greatly enjoyed though it received very mixed reviews, was a time-hopping science fiction film about one man’s quest through the physical, metaphysical, and spiritual plains of existence in order to reunite with the woman he loves. With The Wrestler, Aronofsky leaves behind the transcendental romance and instead creates a reality-based character study about a down-and-out aging wrestler, his down-and-out aging stripper confidante, and the relationship that he has with his estranged daughter. On the surface, this film couldn’t be more unlike The Fountain and yet there are certain themes, which are repeated. But there’s a much deeper side to this seemingly simplistic story and what might at first seem like a mere character drama turns out to have profound spiritual, philosophical, and psychological messages. And unlike in The Fountain, Aronofsky delivers those messages with subtlety and without pretension.
During the mid and late 1980s, no wrestler was more successful or more famous than Randy “The Ram” Robinson. But after a decade of boozing, abusing his body in and out of the wrestling ring, and taking steroids, Randy’s life has fallen apart. Twenty years after his notorious 1989 match with “The Ayatollah” Randy finds himself living in a trailer park and doing shows for a couple hundred dollars a night. When he’s not wrestling, he spends his time visiting his favorite strip club, working night shifts stocking the shelves at the Acme market, injecting steroids and working out. Sometimes he entertains the local neighborhood kids by telling them about his glory days or play-wrestling with them. But his is a lonely life and his only true friend outside of the world of wrestling is an aging stripper called Cassidy. Though Randy wants to date Cassidy, she refuses to start a relationship with any clientele from the strip club. She explains that the strip club and the real world don’t mix. But neither do the wrestling ring and the real world.
After an extremely intense and bloody fight, Randy suffers a near fatal heart attack. He awakes in a hospital bed days later. After a bypass the doctor tells him that he should never wrestle again. This throws a wrench into Randy’s plans. Not only was he meant to go on a cross-country tour, but he’d also recently agreed to a re-match with “The Ayatollah”. Now this can’t happen unless he were to risk another potentially fatal heart attack.
Randy begins to go stir crazy within his trailer. Randy tries to get Adam, one of the neighborhood boys, to play Nintendo with him, but Adam isn’t interested in the technologically outdated games. Tired of his loneliness, Randy attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Stephanie, but when he tells her about his heart attack she thinks that he wants her to take care of him. After an exchange of volatile words, she leaves him standing in the middle of the road, alone, outside of her house.
Unable to wrestle, Randy resorts to fan festivals and autograph signings where all of the old retired wrestlers capitalize on their former fame and glory. During one of these signings, Randy looks around at the tired and decrepit men around him and can’t help but feel that he doesn’t belong there.
While Randy feels out of place and dejected, Cassidy discovers that she’s not as desirous to her customers anymore. They want the younger strippers and certainly not one who’s a single mother well into her forties. So when Randy next shows up at the strip club Cassidy is immediately relieved to see him. He tells her about his confrontational meeting with his daughter and how he wants to do something special for her as a peace offering, but the two had been so distant with each other that he doesn’t know what to do. Cassidy suggests that he buy her some nice clothes, but Randy knows nothing about fashion, so Cassidy offers to come along and help him pick something out. After having gone shopping, Randy and Cassidy have a beer together at a local bar. When Randy tries to kiss Cassidy she reminds him that she’s not permitted to have physical contact with customers.
Soon Randy begins working in the deli at Acme, where he’s relegated to wearing a nametag with his real name, Robin Ramzinski, on it. At first the job’s awkward and tedious, but it’s no long before Randy begins to banter playfully with the customers and actually starts to enjoy himself.
Then Randy attempts, for a second time, to reconcile with Stephanie and this time, to his great surprise, they begin to bond. He even manages to successfully invite her out for a father-daughter dinner during the weekend. Everything seems to be looking up.
Randy goes to the strip club to thank Cassidy for her support and to ask her out again, but Cassidy rejects him because she’s uncomfortable forming a relationship with anyone she knows through her work. When Randy, frustrated and humiliated by this second rejection, angrily demands a lap dance, the two begin to argue violently and Randy is asked to leave the club.
In need of something to make him forget his humiliation, Randy goes to a wrestling match to live vicariously through the two men in the ring, but he ends up being invited to a bar where he gets drunk. While drinking, a drunken groupie with a fireman fetish offers to have sex with him if he’ll pretend to be a firefighter. All during their sexual encounter she vocally imitates the sirens of a fire truck. When Randy wakes up in her bed the next morning in a pair of fireman’s boots and he recalls the pathetically desperate sex of the night before, he sneaks out of the young woman’s house and heads back to his trailer. There, still hung over, he falls asleep and sleeps through the rest of the day. When he awakens that night he realizes that he forgot that he was supposed to meet Stephanie for dinner. He drives over to her house where, despite his sincere apologies, Stephanie refuses to forgive him and reminds of all his failures as a father and as a human being. She tells him that she wants nothing more to do with him.
The next day at work, Randy deals with a very difficult customer and he’s recognized by one of his fans. Humiliated and fed up, he quits his job at Acme in a violent fit of rage.
Desperate to feel important again he calls up his agent to tell him that he’s changed his mind and wants to do the rematch with “The Ayatollah”.
As he’s getting ready to leave for the match, Cassidy goes over to Randy’s trailer and apologizes about their argument the other night. But it’s too late for apologies and it’s too late for her to stop him from wrestling. He knows that the only time he feels worth a damn is when he’s in the ring and the crowd’s cheering his name.
Just before the match Cassidy shows up yet again to tell Randy that she’s quit her job, that she’s in love with him, and that he doesn’t have to go through with the match, but he explains that the ring is the only place that he does belong. Cassidy, unable to watch the man she loves destroy himself, leaves.
During the match, Randy begins to feel weak and breathless, though despite “The Ayatollah”’s concerns and suggestions that they take things easier, Randy doesn’t stop the show or slow down the action. He can’t. He simply won’t give it up.
The film features a spectacular cast headed by Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Marisa Tomei as Cassidy, and Evan Rachel Wood as Stephanie.
Mickey Rourke, who had until recently been in a major career rut, gives a riveting performance as the prideful, stubborn, temperamental, and self-destructive Randy, who bears more than a little resemblance to the actor who portrays him. Like his character, Rourke has had his fair share of ups and downs, including alcohol and drug abuse, as well as a number of volatile relationships, and some startling changes in appearance. Without a doubt, this is Rourke’s most subtle and most nuanced performance to date and easily his most personal. I can’t imagine that this won’t earn him the back the respect that he may have lost during the years when he was absent from quality films and going through very highly publicized personal problems.
What can be said of Marisa Tomei’s performance as Cassidy? Well, first of all, this is perhaps the most provocative and challenging role undertaken by any female actor in recent history and it’s the perfect way for Tomei to remind Hollywood why she’s such a wonderful talent. Not only is her role challenging in its physical requirements since she has to be very lithe and graceful all the while being half-nude, but also emotionally as she has to, as a character, be torn between two worlds. It’s also a very bold career choice to make on her part since typically actresses who portray strippers are often criticized as glorifying an immoral occupation (remember Demi Moore’s controversial turn in the film Striptease).
Evan Rachel Wood, who was stunning in her film debut Thirteen about a young teenage girl’s descent into sex, drugs, and delinquency, gives an equally impressive performance here as Stephanie, Randy’s much neglected and understandably resentful daughter. What makes her role rather different from any of the other actors is that she doesn’t really get to display her character’s qualities when she’s not distressed. Every time that the character of Stephanie is on-screen she is in a state of either great anger or great sadness, so it goes to show off her talents as an actor that the character is still sympathetic and doesn’t come off as being whiny.
It’s also interesting to note that director Darren Aronofsky took a very different approach on this film. Not only did he encourage the actors to improvise, which is something he normally limits while shooting a film, but he also shot the entire film using hand-held cameras and without storyboarding anything first to evoke a documentary-style feeling of voyeurism. All of this was done to create a greater degree of realism and with the camerawork by cinematographer Maryse Alberti, the costume designs of Amy Westcott, and the amazing screenplay by Robert Siegel, Aronofsky has succeeded in capturing that sense of realism. The viewer definitely feels that he or she is watching all of the story’s events unfold as though they were actually happening. Even the brutality of the wrestling matches are so authentic and believable that it’s hard to tell what’s painful reality and what’s carefully rehearsed, much like with real professional wrestling.
But there’s more to this film, as I’ve said before, than meets the eye.
During my first viewing of The Wrestler I was immediately struck by the fact that I was watching a cinematic exploration of dualism, that the characters, which some critics felt were clichéd stereotypes, are actually complex archetypes that aren’t meant to be psycho-analyzed as individuals, but rather as components of Yin and Yang that together create a whole.
The film employs elements from spiritual dualism in both its Christian and Taoist forms, but also a few elements from psychological/metaphysical dualism as exemplified in the works of Descartes, though primarily more traditional concepts of dualism. The most common use of the term dualism usually just refers to an object or person that is divided into two parts, however dualism in the classical sense is more complex than that. Early ideas about dualism date back to Zoroastrian religion, but the most well-known and most commonly embraced form of dualism today is found in certain Judeo-Christian and Taoist and Buddhist beliefs. The film primarily uses Taoist and Buddhist concepts of dualism, though certain Christian concepts of redemption sneak in there as well.
The most obvious exemplifications of Taoist and Buddhist dualism can be found in the parallels between the characters of Randy and Cassidy. In this case Randy is the male energy force, the yang, the aggressor, the dark half of the soul and Cassidy is the feminine energy force, the yin, the nurturer, the light half of the soul.
While Randy exploits his body and the violent impulses of his humanity to make his living as a wrestler, Cassidy exploits her body and the sexual impulses of her humanity to make her living as a stripper. He is in essence a destructive force and she a constructive one. Without Randy, Cassidy cannot be the aggressor, she cannot make her own decisions and though she’s had a dream of quitting her life as a stripper she is inert and indecisive. Randy on the other hand cannot be compassionate, he cannot be introspective enough to understand either himself or others and he is prone to making rash and impulsive decisions which have disastrous consequences. Together, they are ideal since Cassidy finds a certain level of empowerment in Randy’s presence and she’s able to distance herself from the strip club that she’s ashamed of. She wants to rid herself of that life. Randy is able to relate to his daughter with her help, whereas he’s unable to on his own, and Randy wants to be in the ring.
Randy is glorified as the masculine ideal in his profession, which results in his excessive pride and obsession with appearance. Notice that for a change, we see a man dyeing his hair, shaving his chest and armpits, tanning, and wearing tight-fitting apparel. Cassidy is also glorified as the feminine ideal, at least from a physical and sexual perspective, but this fuels her insecurities and her fears that she can’t form a real relationship.
There are even some direct visual references to the dark and light halves of reality. Randy, who is blonde, though not naturally, is physically on the light side though he is meant to represent the yang component and Cassidy, who is brunette, is physically on the dark side though she represents the yin component. This is also echoed by the fact that the wrestling ring is well lit, but the strip club is dark. But perhaps the greatest visual representation of dualism, and one that could be misconstrued as being racist, is the fact the Randy, a Caucasian, has his final match with “The Ayatollah”, a black man. This could also be seen as a battle between the Eastern and Western concepts of dualism, though that seems a little obvious.
In classical Taoist belief, man and woman cannot exist without one another, not just because the continuation of the human race would then be impossible, but because both have certain physical, mental, and spiritual characteristics which make them dependent on one another.
All in all, whether you acknowledge the esoteric symbolism and the philosophy of the film or not, The Wrestler is an amazing piece of entertainment with strong performances and a terrifically poignant story.