Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Film Review--The Wrestler (2008)

When I first heard that Darren Aronofsky, one of my favorite young directors, was making a movie about wrestling, one of my great loves, starring Mickey Rourke and Marissa Tomei, two of my favorite actors, I know there was no way I would miss it. Yet, The Wrestler came and went from the theater and I sat at home. Really, I have a hard time justifying an hour drive to see a movie, but this was one I really was looking forward to seeing. For a long time, the only person I knew who actually had seen it was Erik, decidedly not a wrestling fan. He described it as a solid film, yet it took me until very recently to watch it.

I loved it almost entirely. The simplicity of the story allows the characters to breathe and take shape on their own without too much influence from plot contrivances. With only three essential characters, there is time to burn and I think two of these three are over-the-top good with the third standing out as my sole complaint about the film. Rourke is phenomenal, but the surprise at this was ridiculous. Not only had he already "come back" with his role as Marv in Sin City, his performances through the years, at least in those years that he cared, have been consistently solid. I'm not going to sit here and claim that Wild Orchid is great cinema, but he's still good at what he does. Tomei is equally good and possibly better that Rourke. She is given considerably less to work with, but the strength of her performance gives her character much more depth than the script allows. And then there's Evan Rachel Wood, who has even less to do than Tomei, but can't even rise to the level of the character skeleton handed to her, adding absolutely nothing to the role. She doesn't bring the film down too much simply because she doesn't have much screen time, but what time she does spend with Rourke makes for the worst moments of the film.

I don't want to get into a breakdown of the story. There's no point in equating wrestling and sex work; saying that both professionals sell their bodies for an industry that will spit them out as soon as their bodies break is like telling me that water is wet. Unlike Aronofsky's other work, I barely find this story worth discussing. Instead, what makes this film such a great experience is its realism and not its sometimes ham-fisted plotting. After he saw the film, Erik asked me about the really violent stuff, the staple guns and barbed wire, etc., and whether that was the norm in independent wrestling or a marginalized extreme. My response was to describe a match from Sacramento's SPW (Supreme Pro Wrestling) show that I attended in around 2001. The contest was billed as a "death match" and, for wrestling fans, this one's a big seller. At the finale of the match, one of the wrestlers set up a contraption that could only exist in wrestling. A plywood plank covered in barbed wire and attached by small dowels to a sheet of glass was placed on the floor of the theater. The losing wrestler was then laid across this brutal little table while the winning wrestler climbed a ladder inside the ring. He jumped from the ladder to finish the guy off, but his opponent moved, leaving this poor bastard to land face-first through the glass and into the barbed wire. He lost the match, but watching this guy wallow in the wire and glass is one of the truly disturbing things I've seen. The answer to Erik's question, of course, is yes, this kind of hardcore style is extremely common on the independent circuit and thousands of "Randy-the-Rams" are wrestling on cards this week across the country for likely little more than gas money and some dinner.

The real reason, however, that I like The Wrestler so damn much isn't for anything I said above. I laughed during much of the film, a reaction I doubt many non-wrestling fans had. I didn't laugh because it was funny; I laughed because it was correct and I reacted very much as I would to a quality wrestling match. The fact is that The Wrestler is a spectacularly sad film, but not for the performances or the script or the style. It's sadness comes from its truth. I have devoted many hundreds of hours to professional wrestling during my life and you don't have to tell me how the story of Randy the Ram ends. The Wrestler is an elegy for all those dead wrestlers who made the same choices the Ram did. So many of my favorite wrestlers growing up: Brian Pillman, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Rick Rude, Owen Hart, and I could go on forever. I love wrestling as much or more than any form of entertainment and this love is what makes me sad.