Thursday, December 25, 2008

Movies: The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky: the first go-to dark director who hasn't disappointed me this year (of course, he disappointed me with The Fountain, so he's not golden, but that's not what this is about). You've got to hand it to a guy for making a movie so depressing that the happiest possible ending is to kill off the protagonist. That's real dedication to the truth.

Backing up: Randy "The Ram" (a disturbingly on-point Mickey Rourke) had his glory days as a pro-Wrestler in the 1980s. Twenty years later, he's still wearing his hair bleach blonde and long, and he's still trying to get by wrestling, supplementing his income working stock at a grocery store. When he gets locked out of his trailer for being late on rent, he sleeps in his van. He has an estranged daughter and nurses a crush on an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei, whose animal body is far too hot to be that of an actual aging stripper). Today's wrestling matches are brutal, involving staple guns and broken glass and barbed wire and roach spray to the eyes. Then he has a heart attack and the doctor tells him he can't wrestle anymore, and he cancels the big upcoming rematch with the Ayatollah.

But things are looking up—the stripper convinces him to make amends with his daughter, and they go for a walk on the abandoned boardwalk he brought her to when she small. He cancels the big rematch coming up and takes extra hours at the grocery store, working in the deli. He asks the stripper out for a real date.

But Randy's always been a fuck-up. There's a drunken night out and he misses a dinner date with his daughter; she refuses to ever speak to him again. The stripper refuses to see him outside the club (problems of her own), he cuts his hand on the meat slicer at the deli, and he realizes that he has nothing to live for but wrestling. The rematch is on. The stripper tries to make amends, but it's too late. He goes into the ring; he fights. He feels another heart attack coming on, but he won't stop. He climbs the ropes for his signature move—the Ram Jam—and as he leaps off, the screen goes black: death.

Aside from its philosophical implications, the film is visually viscerally brutal to boot. Aronofsky has always been completely unflinching, leaving it to me to close my eyes during Requiem For a Dream's needle sequences and, now, during most of The Wrestler's wrestling scenes. I readily admit to being squeamish, but it's key that the director is not: seeing Randy's opponent attach dollar bills to his own forehead using a staple gun, whether I can bear to watch it or not, is the ultimate indication of the depths to which our hero has sunk. When Randy puked after that match, I almost did so myself. That is potent filmmaking.

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