Saturday, January 17, 2009

New Film: The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, from a Robert D. Siegel screenplay, provides the past year's most intelligent - and unexpected - use of a cinematic inter-text: Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). Quoting from the prophet Isaiah (chapt. 53), Marisa Tomei's stripper Cassidy compares Micky Rourke's eponymous Randy "The Ram" Robinson to the Messiah: "he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed." Significantly, Cassidy closes the quote by citing the Gibson film rather than the Biblical text, thus positioning The Wrestler as an inheritor of The Passion's particular exegesis - namely, that Christ's suffering (for mankind's sin) is the fault of all persons - as well as to its disfiguring violence. The Wrestler demands a similar, however secular, accounting of its spectators complicity in 'The Ram's' physical degeneration. With extreme caution, this line might be extended to Rourke's real-life decay in the public eye; regardless, the effects of the performer's lifestyle secure the film's unmistakable authenticity.

A second, implicit point-of-reference can be found in the similiarities shared between The Wrestler and the works of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.^ Most directly, Aronofsky and cinematographer Maryse Alberti's behind-the-shoulder camera work recalls the Dardenne brothers' 2002 The Son, which needless to say procured a Christian allegory of its own. The Wrestler's highly-identificatory mise-en-scène emphathetically showcases the everyday physical effects of the title activity and years of drug use (both professionally-enhancing and not) for Randy, as well as the bodily stress of the shoot and the self-medicating again for Rourke. Like his 2000 Requium for a Dream, Aronofsky has succeeded in creating an almost unimaginably mimetic art. While in both cases the films can be difficult to watch, even if The Wrestler does not even come close to Requium... in this regard, the director's latest separates itself once again for its thoughtful self-positioning within the aforesaid cinematic traditions.

The Wrestler likewise manages to artfully externalize its protagonist's physical and emotional distress. Like 'The Ram's' time-ravaged physique, Aronofsky's locations secure the same sense of a life ending, with their mid-winter, treeless settings: chief among these is the New Jersey trailer park in which Randy lives (which happens to recall another of the Dardenne's films, 1999's Cannes-prize winner Rosetta). Of course, this late year setting does form a background for one of the film's most winning passages - namely, the deserted NJ boardwalk where Randy and his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) return to the location of many of the pair's all-too-rare shared memories. In a tightly-framed medium close-up, Randy delivers an urgent, and truly heart-breaking monologue to the daughter, whom he admits he tried to forget. At least momentarily, The Wrestler shows itself to be among the most hopeful of this year's films. This scene's opening also shows the picture's, as well as 'The Ram's wit, in his choice of belated gifts for his daughter.

Of course, Aronofsky and Siegel deny us this happy ending. Randy is much too far degraded (in every respect) to achieve permanent reconciliation and restoration. While his 'performance' at his new deli-counter job again showcases his humor and hints at redemptive possibilities - Randy demonstrates a real aptitude with his customers that Arnofosky compares to the wrestling ring (with its back-stage passageway and the filmmakers' use of non-diegetic crowd cues) - a subsequent strip-club encounter with Cassidy deflates the newly rejuvenated Randy, setting off the course of events that will bring 'The Ram' back to the ring one last time.

The film's conclusive match reunites 'The Ram' with 1980s era-opponent 'The Ayatollah' in an unmissable reference to former WWF heavy The Iron Sheik, who famously (among former wrestling aficionados, as this writer was in his childhood) lost his title to Hulk Hogan. Indeed, local color is also supplied with a title credit sequence that includes magazine covers - including industry standard Pro Wrestling Illustrated - and by the participation of real-life grapplers, who really do experience a wear-and-tear in the ring, thanks to the razor blades and chair backs that bring the 'fake' sport to life. Among the film's most harrowing set-pieces is an autograph signing where Randy's compatriots - who it should be added never fail to act warmly towards the aging champion - wait for a very small number of fans, as they sit in their wheel chairs or with their catheters drooping below their pant legs'.

While Rourke does not in reality belong to this world in the same way, his Randy 'The Ram' Robinson is a flawlessly drawn and instantiated entry into their universe. In other words, Rourke deserves all the many accolades he has received for his extraordinary performance. Tomei's still beautiful, though similarly-near retirement Cassidy holds the screen with the former, in no small measure thanks to the actress's physical performance - which is to say her topless dancing. She is every bit as convincing in this role as Rourke is as a worn 1980s legend. (The film's 1980 period detail, including a perfectly placed Guns-N-Roses standard, does much to enchance The Wrestler's authentic characterizations.) Indeed, Arnofosky and Siegel's narrative, structured on its parrallelisms - their jobs, children and so on (she is the much better preserved) - is very much their story.

While there can be no denying the centrality of Rourke's epic performance in carrying the film, The Wrestler is nonetheless more than the sum or his or even their performances (Wood too is of note). Indeed, by virtue of its smart assimilation of sources and its mimetic formal articulation of content, Aronofsky's work is among best American films of the previous year, making the film very deserving of a 'Best Picture' nomination (certainly above frontrunners Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Milk) in addition to its sure-thing acting nominations.

^ It has been brought to my attention that Todd McCarthy makes the same comparison. If I noticed this after reading McCarthy (I cannot remember now if I did) I would like to cite the Variety critic. If I did not, then there really must be something to this convergence.


Matt Hauske said...

Nice review, Mike. I was lukewarm about this film when I saw it last week, but your review has opened up it a lot for me, so thanks. Developing that Passion intertext really helped. I would add, though, that the suffering of Christ (and The Ram) is not only the fault of all persons, but is also supposed to promise precisely the redemption for said persons that is foreclosed upon in this film, making the ending all the more poignant. Rourke's final speech doesn't allow the film audience to accept his life choices for the sake of the enjoyment he gives his wrestling audience, who remain an anonymous, screaming mob. (Compare the iconic scene in the church in Sullivan's Travels where the comedy director realizes that his films have redemptive value?) Instead of redemption for him, us, or them, we're left with...what? I don't know. Personally I'm frustrated that this bright, intelligent, affable guy couldn't find it within himself to abandon the fans who surely will abandon him once he retires, but I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with that.

I'm still not crazy about Wood's character or performance, but I thought Tomei was awesome--if she didn't deserve her My Cousin Vinny Oscar, she earned it here. Demi Moore and Elizabeth Berkeley's decisions to portray strippers have absolutely no courage about them--Tomei displays nothing but.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Matt, thank you for the fine comments.

While I will agree that it is an imperfect analogy - The Ram is obviously no innocent - the intertext does permit for the sensitive viewer (i.e. the professional wrestling fan, past and present; the crowd at the New Haven screening I attended seemed to bring many such persons into the theatre, atypically) to consider their role, as minimal as it is, in these athletes' professional and later lives. That is, we see that they have truly suffered physically for our entertainment. Again, this is not a perfect analogy, but the previous film's pointed reflection on human complicity opens up a comparison that would not have been as direct without its specific intertext. It provides a key for reading The Wrestler.

Matt Hauske said...

Despite the excellence of your review, Mike, I don't think a better analysis of this film is possible than the one that exists here:

I see the future of film studies in this clip.