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picture - The WrestlerFilm Review

by John Topping

published December 19, 2008


The Wrestler

rated R

now playing in select theaters


It may have been a case of low expectations, but I was knocked out by The Wrestler (no pun originally intended).  Every time I saw the previews, with Some Famous Critic’s quote that it was the resurrection of Mickey Roarke’s career, I thought, “But we have to look at his face for two hours?”  (It has become grotesquely mask-like.)  But the fact that his performance has gotten so much attention means that there’s a strong possibility of an Oscar nomination; which means I have no choice but to see it, and I wanted to “get this one out of the way” early, to make sure it won’t haunt me in February, patiently and insistently waiting to be seen.


Although he has always obviously been a talented director, I have not been overly impressed with Darren Aronofsky’s films.  Pi and Requiem For A Dream were both impressive in their own ways, but felt ultimately forgettable.  I didn’t see The Fountain but heard only overdone, pretentious things about it.  With The Wrestler, Aronofsky has stripped down his dazzle, shot it on grainy stock, and – perhaps most significantly – didn’t write it himself.  The screenplay is by Robert D. Siegel (who used to be a head writer for The Onion, of all things), and, truth be told, it is not a particularly remarkable story:  a washed-up wrestler’s failing health forces him into retirement;  as he reevaluates his life and what he has to show for it, he tries to forge a relationship with his favorite lap dancer (Marisa Tomei) and to reconcile his absenteeism with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).  Many plot points are predictable, and many that aren’t offer no surprises anyway.


So what is the fuss?  It’s Rourke’s performance as “The Ram,” yes, but also Aronofsky’s down-to-earth direction, and the barren, brutal world that Siegel has chosen as his setting.  While some men may have greatness thrust upon them, audiences of The Wrestler have destitution thrust into their faces.  It’s a dark journey into what is surely for most of us a seedy, unfamiliar world, but one where human beings live and look for love as they etch out a wretched existence.  In the way that a person who is dead inside may welcome a sucker punch to the face in order to feel anything at all, so, to a large degree, for me, the deadness of true emotions I get from so much of American cinema made me enthralled to see a piece of work wherein I was actually having a visceral experience, no matter what form it took.


Rourke’s mask-face and almost offensively ratty, long, dyed-blonde hair become less and less distracting the more we are drawn into his sad, hard life (well, maybe not so much that hair).  His pain is felt almost immediately; every breath he takes and every battered step he walks is a struggle to stay alive.  The near gasping and panting never lets up unless the music of the tittie bar or the roar of the wrestling audience drowns it out.  This guy is broken, unloved and unwanted by everyone in the “real” world; only in the wrestling world is he valued.  He senses that he’s at the end of his life, but will not go gently. 


The peek into the wrestling world holds a unique fascination of its own.  We all know that a typical match is a peculiar display of fabrication, closer to performance (or performance art) than an actual sporting event, but few aside from Cyndi Lauper have witnessed what goes on behind the scenes.  The drug use – primarily steroids, of course – is clearly rampant, but seeing the openness and casualness of the buying, selling and using is an eye-opener to the uninitiated.  In the locker rooms before a wrestling match, the rivals are announced, almost like an elementary school teacher pairing up students for a gym exercise.  They then briefly discuss the gist of the fight that they’ll create for the audience.  And when they go into the ring, even though the fakery is abundant and the winner and loser premeditated, it remains shockingly violent, most memorably in a no-holds-barred match that’s heavy on the novelty and props, using – all agreed-upon in advance – razor wire, thumb tacks, and, most shockingly (and what will probably be most talked about), a staple gun.  The shattered glass and pounding a guy in a trash can with a prosthetic leg almost pale in comparison.  It’s no wonder that this is the match that finally takes a toll on his well-being.  Afterwards they hug backstage, congratulate each other and make sure everyone is alright, with strangely touching machismo. 


picture - The WrestlerThe relationships he has with the aging stripper and particularly with his lesbian daughter are getting the most flak as the most poorly-conceived areas of the story, and I won’t argue, except to say that the writing might suffer, but the excellent acting carries it through these rough spots.  The sensuality between Roarke and Marisa Tomei feels absolutely authentic, and is genuinely sexy; I’ve always thought of her as one of our best actresses, and it’s courageous of her to uncompromisingly play someone who’s past her prime peddling her meat (and she’s still quite beautiful – geez, straight guys can be so fickle).  The scenes with Evan Rachel Wood are more contrived, but I almost cried when he tells his daughter that he just doesn’t want her to hate him.  Maybe I was just having a down-and-out day and it was easy to connect to a loser trying to piece his life together.  In any case, this film is obviously not for everybody – especially the squeamish or anyone who likes chick flicks – and you can pick away all day at its flaws (his Big Speech at the end, in particular, felt more obligatory than heartfelt),  but the flaws are far outweighed by its rewards.


johntopping @



read Kevin Bowen's review of The Wrestler


read Harvey Perr's review of The Wrestler


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