That term first came to my mind when, as a child, I’d try to say “stream of consciousness” and end up with “brainflow.” It seems to fit here.

Welcome to the ramblings of my mind. (For now, these ones revolve mostly around films.)

The Wrestler

Friday, January 2nd, 2009 8:22 pm—Film

The Wrestler (USA 2008, Drama/Sport), Writer: Robert D. Siegel; Director: Darren Aronofsky

When I saw Milk last month, there was a trailer for The Wrestler. It began with an excerpt from a Newsweek review of the film: “Witness the resurrection of Mickey Rourke.”

For anyone who follows Hollywood filmmaking, the casting of Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler carries a lot of impact. Rourke has been out of the film loop for some time, largely because of his reputation as being a nightmare to work with. Bringing him back in a role about a performer who’s fallen out of favour and wants desperately to make a comeback lends The Wrestler deeper meaning and stronger resonance—a classic case of art imitating life.

Randy was a pro wrestler who hit the big time in the late 80s, but who now scrapes together rent for his trailer working at a deli and fighting in grungy New Jersey gyms. The Wrestler opens with a montage of newspaper clippings from Randy’s heyday. And then we cut to him sitting in a plastic chair in the corner of a small, drab change room. It’s 20 years later. He’s up against the wall, but his back is to us, and to the world.

Randy still lives for wrestling. In fact, he’s holding on for dear life. A doll in his image hangs from his car’s rearview mirror, and he plays an ancient wrestling video game featuring The Ram. But when Randy suffers a heart attack after a particularly brutal fight, he steps back from the sport that has consumed him and tries to repair some of the damage to his battered heart—physically and metaphorically. He stops taking drugs. He reaches out to his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). And he pursues a romance with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper who is also reeling from the blows that time has dealt her body, and who struggles with the realization that she can’t keep living the life she once knew.

When Randy says that wrestling is all he does, he’s talking about the sport. But what he’s actually wrestling with has little, if anything, to do with a roped-in ring. What really seems to be at the centre of his world is the emptiness he tries to fill with wrestling. The sport is his drug, a way of blocking out his pain. Having seen Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (where characters succumb to heroin and weight loss pills) and heard a lot about Pi (a film that documents a man’s obsession with numbers and his resulting mental deterioration), I’m clueing in to the fact that addiction, and its powers of delusion and destruction, are key themes for the director.

Early in The Wrestler, we see how much care Randy takes to maintain the appearance of his former life. He jabs himself with steroids; bleaches his long, straggly hair; climbs into tanning beds. He’s killing himself for an audience that no longer cares, but he finds it nearly impossible to stop. Randy tries to find himself outside the ring, but when he can’t make it work he slips back into the façade, played out in a gruesome scene with the deli meat slicer. He can handle blood and broken bones; it’s the pain of real life he can’t bear. As he tells Cassidy on his way back inside the ring: “The only place I get hurt is out there.”

Although The Wrestler is more conventional stylistically than the quasi-experimental Pi, or Requiem for a Dream with its trippy editing, Aronofsky’s originality and willingness to take risks are still evident throughout the film. His camera often follows Randy from behind, watching as he makes his way into the ring, into work, into life. In this way, we’re stuck in Randy’s past and in the way he imagines the world. At one point, we hear the sounds of cheering fans as he makes his way down the long corridor to start his first day of work behind the deli counter.

Aronofsky makes other intriguing, very effective choices. The clever editing of the most brutal wrestling scene (which features barbed wire and staple guns) actually let me think I was off the hook, before I realized the worst was yet to come. And the film’s final shot is bold, brave and shocking. I might just be impressed enough to considering renting Aronofsky’s much-maligned film The Fountain.

The Wrestler is out in most major cities and (for you Ottawa kids) opens at the ByTowne in two weeks. See it. Yes, the film features disturbing violence that may be hard to stomach. But its blows are softened by the fact that the wrestlers continually check in with each other to make sure they haven’t gone too far. The film is somber and depressing, but it also makes space for humour in the way Randy sees the world and how we observe him in it. Rourke and Tomei are fantastic in their roles. And if you’re picking from the holiday movie reels, this one deals with the taboo subject of aging in a much more affecting way than the hugely disappointing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

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One of the best things to come out of The Wrestler, among many great things, is Bruce Springsteen’s beautiful song of the same name. It got a lot of playtime in my little office when it first came out, and certainly while I wrote this post.

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