Sunday, February 1, 2009
The Wrestler (Movie Review)
Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is a film about work and what work means in America. Mickey Rourke plays a fifty-something pro wrestler, Randy the Ram, once a hugely successful performer, now in failing health, urged by every external indicator to give up the game. In the process we see various work venues, not just the squared circle of wrestling—but also the supermarket, which we see is no less grueling and soulless than the rundown school cafetoriums playing host to third-string independent wrestling promotions—and also the places working-class people go or used to go to unwind (before the triumph of cable television and the Internet)—dive bars and, for one touching scene between Randy and his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), an abandoned ballroom at a seaside amusement park, the scene of many a cheap date 50, 60, 70 years ago.
The movie is about how work informs the souls of the workers—and the difficulty of turning one’s back on careers for which one is no longer ideally suited because that work has become the source of meaning … and of authenticity, even in the kayfabe (i.e. fake) world of pro wrestling. In an NPR interview with Terry Gross, Aronofsky recalled how the film had resonated with a minister he met in the Midwest, a man in his fifties, like Randy, whose congregation has dwindled as church members look for younger, more innovative, no doubt more “purpose-driven®” preachers (Rick Warren having effectively become the Vince McMahon of modern Protestantism).
When I first heard that Aronofsky was making a wrestling picture—the term “wrestling picture” itself signifying a ludicrous lost cause in films like the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink—I expected post-modern camp, but what he has given us is a neorealist portrait of work in a post-modern world—where bodies are displayed and publicly humiliated as tongue-in-cheek entertainment, but a world where bodies still suffer and break down, where souls wear out, no more in the grueling punishment of barbed wire and staple-gun matches than in the daily grind.
The film gives us also a head-turning performance by Marisa Tomei. Her Oscar-winning performance in My Cousin Vinny long ago written off as a fluke, Tomei redeems her rep with what may be her best performance to date. She plays Cassidy, a 40-something stripper, a single mom, who has become Randy’s closest friend—that it is a friendship built on $60 lap dances is one more way the film shows us that fakeness and superficiality have their own integrity and validity in the post-modern world. As a stripper past her prime, Cassidy has to put up with rejection from patrons interested in younger skin and insults from drunken frat boys, for whom cruelty is just another form of amusement. Still, like Randy, she views her work both with a jaded eye and a deep sense of professionalism—a point she raises several times as she stops herself from crossing certain lines with her customers.
I would be thrilled if Oscar tied this year between Sean Penn’s breakthrough performance as Harvey Milk and Mickey Rourke’s revelatory performance as Randy the Ram. As everyone knows, Rourke’s own face is ravaged after years of semi-professional boxing. In close-ups, it looks barely stitched together, about to crumble. Rourke, even from his early role in Diner, is one of Hollywood’s most gifted actors at playing tough vulnerability (Penn is another)—and his face adds to the sense of devastation—and the performance is devastating … and true beyond what most screen actors are capable of.
From trailer parks to thrift shops, the settings of the film are grittily realistic but no less symbolic of transitory and migratory existence in the modern world. The wrestlers (most of whom are played by actual independent circuit wrestlers) travel from gig to gig, living in motel rooms and their vans. Randy keeps a school portrait of his daughter, on the back of which is a long list of crossed-out phone numbers, each with a different area code.
This is a world where everything is second-hand and two or three times removed from its center. Early in the film, Cassidy touches Randy’s battle scars and recites, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” When asked what she’s talking about, Cassidy cites not the prophet Isaiah, but Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
For years now when asked whether professional wrestling is fake, wrestlers have responded belligerently with the question “What is ‘fake’?” It’s the same question Orson Welles asked in his 1974 “documentary” F for Fake, about art and art forgery. Aronofsky’s film seems to repeat the question. Its brutal realism in portraying a fake and superficial culture, where the most authentic and lasting connections are matters of performance for pay, will make the thoughtful viewer reassess the nature of the world we live in now—and isn’t that what all good art is supposed to do?
Posted by Joe at 7:40 AM