The Wrestler (Fox Searchlight, R)

film_wrestler.jpgThe Ram hangs on, embracing the show-business gospel that his big break will come and he’ll be back in the spotlight once again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) used to be somebody: a headliner in the big-money world of professional wrestling who performed in Madison Square Garden and was featured on pay-per-view matches. But that was 20 years ago, and now he’s just a beat-up nobody trying to eke out a living playing community halls where the paychecks don’t even cover the rent on his trailer.

Yet the Ram hangs on, embracing the show-business gospel that his big break will come and he’ll be back in the spotlight once again. Before you condemn him, stop to reflect: Who among us has not been guilty of a similar lapse in judgment, believing against all logic that the world will become as we wish, rather than as it is? Hence the enduring popularity of movies about down-but-not-entirely-out athletes and performers (or on reality shows, the wannbes and never-wases of the world): This is America, everyone’s entitled to be a star, and fame could be waiting for you just around the corner.

The Wrestler transcends professional wrestling as Requiem for a Heavyweight transcends boxing and The Clown transcends standup comedy. Robert Siegel’s script raises the broken figure of the Ram to the level of a tragic hero, with epic aspirations done in by his very human failings. The Ram is not a bad guy; he’s friendly with the neighbor kids, enjoys a real camaraderie with the other wrestlers, and cheerfully totes boxes and dispenses potato salad at a local supermarket between bouts. But he’s also a screw-up who’s already cashed in most of his lifetime allotment of free passes, leaving him with an angrily estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and a dearth of friends beyond his favorite lap dancer (Marisa Tomei).

Few punches are pulled in The Wrestler, inside or outside the ring. Without being maudlin or condescending, director Darren Aronofsky presents a realistic view of life as lived by people struggling to make ends meet in parts of New Jersey which make the state’s motto ("The Garden State") seem a sad joke.

Wrestling fans will not be disappointed by the action scenes; excellent cinematography by Maryse Alberti takes you right into the ring, and the physical violence is presented so vividly that I occasionally found myself looking away from the screen. The fact that match outcomes are predetermined is beside the point; wrestlers put on a show which requires great athletic ability and carries substantial risk of injury. The risk is even higher in the low-rent bouts the Ram has been reduced to playing, which are enlivened by the use of weaponry including barbed wire, broken glass and a staple gun (don’t ask).

The characters in The Wrestler live in the shadow of success, yet know they are unlikely to enjoy it themselves. But they keep striving, against all reason, hoping for that one big payoff while remaining aware that they are being used up in the process. The title theme by native son Bruce Springsteen sums up Rourke’s character:

Have you ever seen a scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and wheat?
If you’ve ever seen that scarecrow then you’ve seen me.
Have you ever seen a one-armed man punching at nothing but the breeze?
If you’ve ever seen a one-armed man then you’ve seen me.

| Sarah Boslaugh

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