Saturday, January 31, 2009

Taking the hits

The Wrestler (2007)
D. Darren Aronofsky
Fox Searchlight

I'm not a big fan of Big Time Wrestling, but boy my friends are. So I get it all by proxy. I can tell you a lot of what is going on in the wrestling world just from being around it so much from my friends. So much that I have gained an appreciation for it as entertainment. I can appreciate the effort and work that goes into the lifestyle that it requires to do what these men and women do to bring their work to the ring week after week. I also am friends with and work around a lot of local wrestling people and get to see how these shows are put together behind the scenes quite a bit, and here is a lot of skill and training there too. What looks like goofy guys throwing each other around takes a lot more to do than the average viewer might think. Wrestling has gotten a bad wrap over the lest few years thanks to the backyard variety of kids beating the shit out of each other with trashcans and barbed wire without any regard for safety or sport. But there is so much more to it than that and the real professionals that have made it their lives know that.

I am also a huge fan of stories about men who have hit the end of the road in their lives. People who have for what ever reason come to that point where things have just fizzled out and the decisions have hit a roadblock leading to chain reactions of events that seems to be leading to a not so pretty conclusion. Stories of men trying hard to reach redemption before a fall. Guys who want nothing but that last comeback, or to at least put things as right as they can before they fade away forever. I love these kinds of stories. For some reason I feel a great kinship with the protagonists in stories like these, and always have. Though I am certainly not old enough to justify my feeling this way, I often identify more with those characters than any others in cinema. And Randy "The Ram" in The Wrestler is among the best characters of this sort in recent memory.

Mickey Rourke has been touted far and wide as a come back role in the lead in this film as Randy "The Ram" a tired, burned out former pro wrestler now 20 years past his prime wrestling the local circuit to make a living. In the circles he is still respected, but since he is basically an old man he can only get these small gigs. His back is shot, his elbows are going, his body is ravaged and he is on medication. He is still juicing to keep his muscles up. His age shows all over his weathered physique. He can barely make his ends meet and ends up sleeping in his van more than his mobile home because he never can make his rent on time. But the roar of the crowd and respect of his peers keeps him afloat. He has a thing for the aging stripper at the local club (played wonderfully by Marissa Tomei). He has posited himself as her protector and her as his confidant and friend. Her life isn't too much better than his as since she is considerably older than the young hard bodies working the club she is constantly snubbed for dances and tips. She's still beautiful, but the customers want youth and overlook her. They are both damaged goods. Damaged by the progression of time and life and in many ways perfect for each other. But things don't always work out the way they should. Life has a way of kicking people when they are down, no matter how hard they try to climb out of their holes. One of the holes Randy tries desperately to climb out of is his separation from his estranged daughter played by Evan Rachel Wood. He walked out on his family years ago for his career and now he wants her as part of his life again. But she has never let go of that abandonment and forgiveness is hard to come by.

THE WRESTLER is a very simple movie in a many ways. It is not unlike the best of the 70's urban drama's like BLUE COLLAR or even Scorsese's ALIVE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. Movie's that are character based with simple lives and situations. The only "Hollywood" thing about this movie is the fact it is about pro-wrestling. But that is humanized and brought down to real life in about a few minutes after we see the first bout. We see how it works, how it is staged and how it still takes a huge emotional and physical toll on the players. The second bout we see where Randy goes to an "extreme" match, something he hasn't done up until that point, but does for the money, is one of the most emotionally draining and brutal things I've endured for a long time. Its not so much the violence on display that is repulsive, though there is plenty. It is the savaging the character is taking inside. It is the beating his soul is taking that puts us over the edge. The film making technique in this sequence is outstanding. Aronofsky baits us in by showing us the brutal aftermath first. We are shocked and horrified at Randy's condition and the beating he has taken. Then we are allowed in chunks to see what happened as he is cared for and sewn up from the beating. The flash back and forward together is so effective that it is far more brutal than had we actually just seen the match itself. Otherwise the movie is amazingly understated, with Aronofsky keeping his camera at bay, never letting it intrude and keeping his cutting down to a minimum. If you didn't already know it, you would never guess this was the same director as REQUIEM FOR A DREAM because stylistically it is so different. Equally brilliant, but so different.

I can't really discuss the ending without giving it away, but I will say the audience I saw it with was audibly aggravated with it. For a brief moment I was disappointed as well. But them immediately I felt like it was the best way to end the film. Any other way would have been too Hollywood and cheap emotional chain pulling. they way it ends is the perfect way to end it. That image is the exact moment to end the film on. It is the way to remember Randy The Ram. The image to walk out of the theater with.

There is so much more I could praise about the film, but then I would be getting into spoiler territory and i don't want to do that. Go see it, and then realize that the Oscars are full of shit for not nominating this for Best picture and Best director. What the hell were they thinking this year? I mean really? I think they didn't want to legitimize something as "low brow" as wrestling so they snubbed the movie. Or they have a bone up their ass for Aronofsky for some reason (they didn't nominate him for REQUIEM FOR A DREAM either when they should have). But its no matter because the movie is a monster and deserves your attention.

Andy Copp

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