Wrestling is so weird. It’s boxing, circus sideshow, cheesy stage play and soap opera all in one. The big time wrestling leagues try to drown the show in pyrotechnics and flashy computer animation on giant screens but alot of the appeal is still very old fashioned. It’s the circus. I went to a match one time and saw Andre the Giant. It wasn’t so much like seeing a star as like seeing a Greek god. Or maybe a sasquatch. There was a reason they called him “The 8th Wonder of the World.” These guys are not human, they’re super heroes.
Or it seems that way when you see them up close. But actually they are human. Greek gods might be able to toss lightning around all day without spraining anything, but not humans. God or evolution did not equip humans to break metal chairs over their heads every night, or break tables with their ribs. Wrestlers make their living by not following the proper care and maintenance instructions for the human body, and they always pay the price.
Although I’ve been talking up wrestling documentaries like BEYOND THE MAT and HITMAN HART: WRESTLING WITH SHADOWS for years now I’ve barely watched any wrestling since the commercial heyday of the WWF in the ’80s. I guess I’m not that into watching it but I’m obsessed with the idea of it. It’s just such a fascinating world, larger than life entertainment, kind of surreal in its contradictory fakeness and realness (we know it’s an act, but also that it takes a serious physical and mental toll on those poor sonofabitches). And both of those movies showed the sad side of it. Many professional wrestlers struggle with what Roddy Piper calls “The Sickness” in his autobiography. Using painkillers and steroids as part of their daily regimen, drinking and partying almost as often, damaging their bodies every time they work and being away from their families while on the road, living up to an exaggerated persona – this is not a lifestyle that is likely to lead to a happy ending. Online there are lists of professional wrestlers who died young and they are long and heartbreaking.
But I never would’ve thought a fictional movie would ever paint a believable portrait of wrestling. Darren Aranofsky’s new movie THE WRESTLER is almost too good to be true. He uses a Hollywood actor and a fictional universe of wrestlers – two things I would think could never work – and creates a movie that at times feels as real as those documentaries.
Of course, the secret weapon here is Mickey Rourke in pretty much the most perfect casting that anybody has ever done ever in the history of human life. There is no other non-former-wrestler actor in Hollywood who could’ve done this role (scary to think they almost gave up and went with Nic Cage when nobody would finance the Rourke version). Rourke looks so much like a veteran wrestler – he has the muscles, he has the facial damage, he has the charisma, and he has the look in his eyes of a guy who has punished himself for many years. Everybody points out that Rourke’s career had sort of hit the skids (until fairly recently) and therefore he fits the role of this washed-up wrestler, but then again you could say that about John Travolta before PULP FICTION or Robert Downey Jr. before IRON MAN, but those guys could never have played Randy “The Ram”. That’s why this movie is kind of a miracle. It’s just amazing that Mickey Rourke exists to star in this movie. Maybe he’s the 9th Wonder of the World.
If you saw BEYOND THE MAT, and Koko B. Ware dancing with his parrot in that shitty hotel room, you know that wrestlers who were once international superstars eventually find themselves wrestling in high school gyms for a few hundred bucks. With admirable minimalism and restraint the movie paints the portrait of a wrestler marching bravely through that stage of his life. There are no flashbacks, just an opening credits montage of magazine articles from the ’80s, followed by “20 YEARS LATER” and The Ram sitting “backstage” after a match in what appears to be a nursery or pre-school class room.
The different ways that Randy’s life is fucked come out a piece at a time and with just the right lack of detail. He gets locked out of his trailer for not paying rent. He works part time at a grocery store where the manager makes fun of him and he’s embarrassed to be recognized. He needs so many painkillers he has to go in debt to pay for them. He has a hearing aid, but never comments on it. He has a scar on his face that is never mentioned. He has a huge bottle of hot sauce next to his bed. (Okay, I have no idea the significance of that one.) Rourke’s most brilliant touch, so real I’m not sure if he’s faking it or not, is the constant sighs and grunts that leak out as he goes through his daily life. He doesn’t talk about it much but he is clearly a man in constant pain.
One subplot that seems inspired by the sad story of Jake “The Snake” Roberts in BEYOND THE MAT is Randy trying to reunite with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood of SKANDER HALIM’S PRETTY PERSUASION fame). We know he was never there for her and that she hates him. We don’t know what happened to the mom, and there is no Hollywood style reason for why he left. He fucks up in a way that happens in a million different relationship dramas, but more like real life he doesn’t figure out a way to make it better.
The one little thing that came off as a bit of Hollywood bullshit is Marisa Tomei as an over-the-hill stripper. I’ve never been much of a fan but when they show her naked her body is so impossibly good that the idea of her as a stripper past her prime seems a little far-fetched. I mean, they could’ve made her look more ragged. But she’s good and the character is a little better than the usual hooker or stripper love interest. So this is a minor nitpick.
And the one thing that was a little art movie bullshit to me was focusing on a tattoo of Jesus on the Ram’s back after his most punishing match. We already got a Jesus parallel when Tomei’s character compared his career to THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (already going a little too far I thought) and this was too much. But it’s a rare misstep in an almost perfect character drama.
The “hardcore wrestling,” by the way, is pretty god damn gruesome. I don’t know much about this phenomenon but it is a real thing, wrestlers (including his opponent in this scene, Necro Butcher) who make their reputation through dangerous and painful feats involving broken glass, barbwire and high jumps off of ladders onto tables and metal chairs and shit. I’m not sure they ever combine as many disgusting stunts into one as they show in this match but the movie cleverly shows how the part that’s even worse than willingly getting shot with staples is taking the staples out. It’s pretty hard to watch. Top that, Mel Gibson.
Aranofsky is a director who seems to have gotten a little too much credit for his early movies and then way too much of a backlash as revenge. He is very skilled at a slick, show-offy type of style and that makes the stripped down minimalism of this one all the more admirable. The score for REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is so bombastically emotional that it was used in the trailer for LORD OF THE RINGS and has been a trailer cliche ever since. But this one just has quiet, bluesy guitar played by Slash. The whole thing is very careful, very underplayed, very tasteful. And I think by being so thoughtful about wrestling in his movie he will trick other people to open their minds toward it as well. While WWE was busy making BEHIND ENEMY LINES: COLOMBIA Aranofsky was making the first fictional movie to look into a wrestler’s soul and show the world why they should care about him.
If Mickey Rourke doesn’t win an Oscar for THE WRESTLER, AMPAS president Sid Ganis should have to shave his head. (Or remove his mask if he wears one, I don’t think he does though.) In fact, they should introduce a best actor belt this year instead of the usual statue. It may not be in the bylaws but it’s obviously the right thing to do.
As a semi-respectable writer on the films of cinema who specializes in badass works I am very grateful for a year in which two of the very best dramas were about mixed martial arts (REDBELT) and professional wrestling. And shit, Van Damme had one of the more impressive performances of the year too! Did I dream 2008? This is crazy.
THE WRESTLER is a timeless classic not just about this bizarre industry but about the universal feeling of obsolescence and failure. Randy takes the staples for our sins, but we feel his pain.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.