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The Wrestler [RSC Film Club 31]


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With the start of summer and the beginning of the European Football Championships, this month's film club is all about the sporting life.  The winning film, nominated by @Con, is Darren Aronofsky's 2008 drama The Wrestler, starring Micky Rourke and Marisa Tomei. 

The Wrestler Digital Art by Bo Kev

The film follows Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a wrestler who was big in the 80s but is now well past his prime working small shows on the independent circuit as well as a part time job in a supermarket.  He struggles with addiction, injuries and rocky relationships with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) and stripper with a heart of gold Cassidy (Tomei).

This is a superb film from a very talented director, whose other works include Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan, with a career best performance from Micky Rourke.  This is also one of the few films to treat the sport of pro wrestling with any kind of respect, even love at times, and is full of familiar faces to any fan of the sport.  It's been a good decade since I've seen this, but I only remember loving it so can't wait to elbow drop back in.

mickey rourke GIF by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

the 90s s*cked

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This is a film I knew about after the acclaim it got at the time of release, but just never got round to seeing before, partly because wrestling is not something I have any interest in at all. But you don't need to be a wrestling fan to appreciate this great film. In fact I'd almost say it's not really a sports film. Not because the of the questionable classification of this sort of wresting as a sport, but because in many ways the story could be about any individual who used to excel at their profession, whatever that may be, but who is now struggling to even make enough money to live on.

It's a wonderfully directed story with a brilliant, worthy award winning, performance by Mickey Rourke in the lead role and great support from Marisa Tomei and the rest of cast, many of whom were not professional actors but genuine wrestlers (OK you can call them actors of a sort, but not film actors) or wrestling fans. I watched the documentary about the making of the film as well. Darren Aronofsky wanted to make a story set in the world of the big business WWE or similar wrestling, but abandoned that due to all the legal, franchise, copyright etc issues that would entail. So he opted for this story of an ex-big-star now working whatever hours in the week he can get at a supermarket but earning a bit of cash each weekend wresting in front of a 100 or so spectators with other ex-pros. I'm really glad that is how this film panned out. I can't see me liking it at all if it had been about a current wrestling star. The wrestling scenes where shot at real events of the same type as depicted in the film, with a real crowd and Mickey Roarke shooting his scenes after his stunt double (a genuine wrestler I think) had done his bit.

So if you haven't seen this, it is not just about an ex star wrestler, it's an ex star wrestler trying to re-start his relationship with the daughter he virtually ignored as she was growing up, trying to start a relationship with the ageing stripper he's become more than just a client of (who's professional life mirrors the wrestler's own) and with big health problems that force him to retire from even the semi-pro wrestling scene. I won't say more of the plot other than even though the ending is predictable it is so brilliantly done that does not detract from it. It is a little gory for me in couple of scenes. I find it disturbing that wrestlers go as far as to deliberately cut themselves, dive onto real barbed wire, punch staples into their body etc, all for the entertainment of the paying public, but if that's what actually happens then quite right to depict it in the film.


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In the cinematic realm the sport of wrestling is criminally underrepresented, especially when you consider how much history and drama there is both in the ring and backstage.  I can only think of four other films that deal with the subject.  Two documentaries, Beyond the Mat by Barry Blaustein, which is about the sport as a whole and was made in 1999 at the peak of wrestlings popularity, and The Resurrection of Jake the Snake by Steve Yu which documents the legendary 80s wrestler, charting his low points (which feature prominently in Beyond the Mat) and his subsequent rise to sobriety and self-respect.  Both are excellent and well worth watching, even to non-fans.  As for fiction films you have the fluffy but decent Fighting With My Family by Stephen Merchant, a biopic of the British wrestler Paige and her rise to the top of women's wrestling, and the awful Ready to Rumble, starring David Arquette and made in collaboration with World Championship Wrestling as a promotional tool for the company (as part of this cross-promotion Arquette became WCW World Heavyweight Champion, which some consider to be the lowest point for the company).  It failed on all fronts and WCW went bankrupt and were bought out by their biggest competitors, WWE, less than a year later.  

38 Things Only Wrestling Fans Know To Be True

And then we come to Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, and it is clear from watching this that it was made by someone who not only loves the sport but respects the athletes.  Mickey Rourke's Randy “The Ram” Robinson may be well past his prime and falling apart, but he can still make the kids in his trailer park cheer and laugh and he can still pull on his tights and put on the best show he can for probably not even fifty bucks a night.  Aronofsky never presents this guy as pathetic or a loser, even when he's saying those exact things to his daughter.  That respect extends to the sport itself.  Aronofsky takes great care to present the most realistic depiction of professional wrestling in screen history.  He captures the camaraderie between the wrestlers backstage and he instantly dispels any claims that it's all fake with his careful examination of Rourke's battered and bloodied body after his fights.  

The highlight of this (though not for dj) is his extreme hardcore fight with a real wrestler who goes by the charming name of Necro Butcher.  I love the way that he cuts from The Ram backstage getting his many and varied injuries tended to, to earlier in the evening where we see how he got those injuries in the match.  Aronofsky's direction throughout is excellent.  I particularly love his use of long tracking shots which follow Randy around.  It gives a real documentary feel to the film and gives more credence to the fact that this is a real person, making you more invested in his story.  

Weekend Fallout: I Didn't Choose the Wasteland Life, the Wasteland Life  Chose Me - ScreenAge Wasteland

The performances are excellent all round, but Rourke is absolutely amazing in this, probably the best performance of his career.  Marisa Tomei is great as the stripper with a heart of gold, and though she may have been basically playing an archetype she's such a good actor that that doesn't become a problem.  I do like how her struggle with dual identities mirrored Randy's, but could have maybe been developed further.  Evan Rachel Wood doesn't get much screen time but she is incredibly sympathetic as the heartbroken daughter who just can't care about her father anymore.  

Hai da spicciare? — Mickey Rourke & Evan Rachel Wood. “The...

As for the ambiguous ending, which I've read some negative things about, I really like it.  I also don't think that it's as ambiguous as it looks.  In my opinion, Randy choosing to climb to the top rope to deliver the Ram Jam is him committing suicide.  His look up to where Cassidy was, only to see that she's not there, sealed the deal for him, and there's a look that Rourke gives at that moment that seems to say “I guess this is it then”.  His body flying out of frame to a cheering audience before cutting to black has such a finality to it that I can't see any way where he gets out of that ring alive.  This is a brilliant film in every respect and I highly recommend this to everyone, whether you're a fan of wrestling or not.  

The wrestler darren aronofsky mickey rourke GIF - Find on GIFER

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