The Wrestler

Redemption is a common theme in literature and film. The need to make up for some past wrong provides powerful motivation for any character, and we respond to it, probably because we all fall short of the ideal now and then. We like to think that there’s always another chance out there. In movies atonement often equates to glory. The hero’s redemption manifests itself in personal achievement usually at the last possible minute. This displays his long hidden strength of character and gives him the confidence to carry on.

The Wrestler doubly resonates with these themes because the star, Mickey Roarke is on a path that pretty much parallels that of his character. Roarke’s career, started out well and then began to fizzle as he developed a reputation for being hard to work with. Soon the job offers dried up. In his youth, he’d been a talented amateur boxer, so he went pro in that. He had seven fights, six victories and one draw before a doctor told him he was risking serious brain damage. He went back to Hollywood and worked hard to get back into the good graces of producers and casting directors. In short he brings to the role of Randy “The Ram” Robinson a lot of what method actors call emotional memory. The Ram’s life of tawdry matches fought in school gymnasiums might as well be Roarke’s. The man is practically playing himself in his own biopic and this performance is Mickey Roarke’s last chance at redemptive glory.

He nails it. This is a man in a brutal profession and yet he’s kind to children, respectful of fans, and helpful to young wrestlers. He goes through the daily indignities of his life–getting locked out of his trailer for getting behind on his rent, or getting shorted on his pay because the house wasn’t as big as the promoter expected–without complaint. The Ram is also an entertainer at heart. When he works the meat counter at a grocery store, he’s showing off by tossing the containers of potato salad in the air. He flirts with the customers and draws attention to himself. This is a man who wants to be loved and he is. You also see his remorseful side in the scenes with his daughter. It’s maudlin Hollywood fare but Roarke makes it sing.

Marisa Tomei is good also as Cassidy, a stripper who befriends The Ram. She too is in a situation where her body may not be able to let her continue in her profession. The dance she does as she decides what to do about her feelings for The Ram is fascinating. Evan Rachel Wood captures her character’s attraction to her larger than life father and her frustration at his failings.

In the hands of a lessor director, The Wrestler could have been a rip off of Rocky, but Darren Aronofsky is too subtle a filmmaker for that. He has crafted a brilliant film that uses grainy film stock and handheld cameras that capture the low rent feel of The Ram’s life. Robert D. Siegel’s script is well paced and has some terrific dialog.

The Wrestler is a brutal film, sometimes to the point of being hard to watch. Pro wrestling is not a sport; it is entertainment. The winner is determined beforehand, but the matches are only loosely choreographed, often with no rehearsal. Which means the blood is real, and so is the pain and the damage to the body.

It’s hard to see how something like that could be redeeming, but maybe it is.

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