Shiny Shelf


By Stephen Lavington on 27 October 2008

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

The 80s revival is so hot right now: the music, the fashions and even, through the likes of ‘Rambo’ and ‘Rocky Balboa’, the movies. Darren Aronofsky takes one step further in this year’s LFF surprise film, at once drawing on and subverting the tropes of 80s underdog movies (specifically the later ‘Rocky’ films), rehabilitating the pariah sport of American Wrestling and building a moving and raw character study that showcases the talents of a reinvigorated Mickey Rourke.

At one level the casting of Rourke is part of what, one suspects, is Aronofsky’s deliberate invocation of the spirit of the age. Rourke is probably best known as a wash-up from the period – an actor with a promising set of debut films who wasted his talent on utter dross. As such he is well-placed to play past-it wrestler Randy “The Ram” (indeed spookily so given Rourke’s own time on the boxing circuit) whose career high was a 1988 battle against “The Ayatollah” at Madison Square Gardens and who now splits his time between a dead-end job in a New Jersey supermarket and playing out the fag-end of his wrestling career in a succession of seedy gymnasia. When not stacking shelves or piledriving Randy spends his evenings at a run-down strip-joint where he is drawn to ageing stripper Cassidy (Marissa Tomei) who is also reaching the end of a career where youth is the essential qualification.

The plot is, in the first analysis, a blatant pastiche of the later ‘Rocky’ films where an ageing athlete, in conflict with his body as much as his sporting rivals, goes for one last big score (in this case a rematch against ‘The Ayatollah’ – now the owner of an Arizona car dealership) while trying to shape a future with a real family (patching-up relations with an estranged daughter, embarking on a new romance) as opposed to the surrogate family provided by the sport and the adoration of its fans. This impression of a hackneyed narrative is bolstered by some truly hackneyed moments, notably between Tomei and Rourke – it is easy to imagine the dialogue (indeed the whole romance) being lifted from one of this film’s 80’s era forebears.

However, there are crucial differences which fundamentally change the nature of the story. The style is uncompromising with grainy stock casting an unflattering light on Randy’s daily life and the mundane activities necessary to keep him in the ring (the bleached hair, perma-tan and battery of pharmaceutical aids). This extends to the lengthy wrestling sequences which occupy a delicate grey area between brutal realism and rose-tinted glorification. On the one hand Rourke trained for months for the role and makes an astonishing contrast to his bloated turn in ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico’. He is muscled, imposing and totally convincing both in and out of the ring. His co-stars are all real jobbing wrestlers and the majority of the crowd scenes were composed of real fans. The venues are not glossy stadia but grimy community halls and the action is visceral and uncompromised. At the same time the camera manages to capture the frenzied devotion of the fans which fires Randy up and keeps him wrestling and gives an air of gladiatorial glory to the proceedings. During the matches the largely quiet soundtrack erupts into the roar of the crowd and hulking, stumbling Randy turns into the fiery dynamo of The Ram.

It is the sport of wrestling, central to the film, which provides the key distinction from films such as ‘Rocky’. Here the antagonism between fighters is completely reversed; in order to avoid serious injury there must be total trust between wrestlers which comes across on screen as a fraternal bond with each meeting of wrestlers akin to a regimental reunion. The only conflict here is within Randy as he measures a sport which at once, thanks to a damaged heart, looks set to kill him but which also provides the warmth of close comradeship and the worship of adoring fans against the grind of daily life in the ‘real’ world. Aronofsky is not original in telling a story based on the athlete’s realisation of mortality but his subversion comes from the suggestion that the conventional resolution – the need to put aside sport’s fleeting glory and face up to the responsibilities of ‘real life’ – is not right for everyone. Cassidy may look to quit stripping and head for a new life elsewhere. This is not necessarily true of Randy.

The milieu of professional wrestling provides a ready-made metaphor for the passing of an era. The stars of the 1980s are broken middle-aged men, and the symbols of their success (such as video games and VHS) are now laughably obsolete. Going further there is commentary on the United States as a whole, with the vitality and confidence of the young Randy’s victory over ‘The Ayatollah’ contrasted with the coughing physical wreck of today, tortuously repeating his battle against an opponent who has grown wealthy and is still in excellent shape. This is perhaps where the film is at its weakest, yet still has resonance thanks to Rourke’s powerful performance as a man both able to pull off the extraordinary physical feats of the wrestler while making the pain and effort that these feats require evident on his ravaged face. He is still formidable but is visibly faltering and obviously in terminal decline.

As Randy and Cassidy note in the film, the 80s are over. In terms of music “that pussy Cobain ruined everything”and posters of AC/DC are now superseded by posters of Vampire Weekend. The message of ‘The Wrestler’ is no less final. Randy can choose the acceptance of the wrestling world over the harsh demands and indifference of the outside world. Indeed, the film implies that such a choice is appropriate given the character of the man and the nature of the sport. However this choice carries with it the ultimate price.

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By Stephen Lavington

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