He drives a broken down van with pictures of his glory days hanging in the back. He walks up the steps to his trailer, his knees cracking with every stride as if he is reaching Everest’s summit. The door is locked, and he breaths extraordinarily hard because of the disgust with his lonely existence and for the extreme toll each movement takes on his broken down body.
The man is Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) and although he has battled and defeated many ferocious people in his wrestling career, life has pinned him down continuously with no respect for the three count. He has experienced unparalleled physical pain from his “fake” fights but knew where those blows were coming from, which is nothing compared to the constant emotional agony from which he does not know the source or how to combat it.
Randy loves wrestling above all, especially himself. He is willing to spend $900 on steroids and other performance-enhancing substances but not able to pay the trailer manager the rent in a timely fashion. Randy will work out for hours in preparation for his matches but cannot find an extra minute to call his estranged daughter and ask for her forgiveness.
Randy craves fulfilling relationships other than those with the fans but he does not want to do what is necessary to achieve the reciprocal love that he covets. He would rather temporarily ignore his perpetual pain and loneliness by visiting strip clubs, drinking heavily, doing lines of cocaine whose disappearance echoes those who have left him, and having rough sex with anonymous women who refer to him as “The Ram” as he quickly thrusts back and forth.
There is a glimmer of hope for Randy, though. The film is about whether he can avoid continuing his path down this road without an accompanying passenger. He has met a stripper (Marisa Tomei) who encourages him to pursue a meaningful relationship with his daughter. The film is an exploration on whether he can become more than a wrestler or if he can evolve into a caring lover, a responsible father, a fulfilled person. Will he sacrifice what is necessary to live a happy life?
“The Wrestler” is also about people with few choices who make just enough money not to live, but to survive. Randy does not work at the local grocery store deli because he enjoys the interaction with the customers, but rather because he needs enough money to coerce the trailer manager into removing the lock from his home. Cassidy makes enough money as a stripper to fee her child, but loathes being treated like a sexual object instead of a person. Even Randy’s daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), goes to college in search of a better life than she was provided as a child. Both Randy and Cassidy are being pushed out of their profession because of their aging and worn bodies, but do either of them have the courage to break away from the jobs that have damaged their body and soul?
Mickey Rourke lives in this role, confronting demons that have ravaged his life in its darkest days. This is not a resurrection as some have suggested but rather an ascension from the depths of hell to the ultimate triumph. It was always apparent that Rourke possessed the talent to mesmerize an audience, but it was not clear whether this would ever happen again. Some have said that because Rourke has experienced some of the same isolation as Randy “the Ram” that it was easier for him to attain the feeling of authenticity, but I believe it is much harder for an actor to remind oneself of unbearable sadness than to “act” in a way that reflects such feelings. Randy “the Ram” is one of the most unforgettable characters in the history of cinema because of Rourke’s commitment to the character.
Marisa Tomei is not the obligatory stripper with a heart of gold, but is a real person who has an understanding of the hurt that she wants to avoid. She is afraid of feeling anything deep for Randy because of her past experiences, but he is aching for something meaningful to make his personal life worthwhile. Evan Rachel Wood creates a complex person, remembering the wounds her father has inflicted on her because they are so deep that they have influenced the very makeup of her character.
Darren Aronofsky, the director, uses a handheld camera with a gruff look to illustrate the harsh and unforgiving realities these characters inhabit. There is not a wasted moment or pointless scene in “The Wrestler.” Every gesture, every look, and every movement unveils something significant about the characters and reveals the core of their existence, making them emotionally naked to the audience. At first, the ending might seem abrupt but it articulates everything that needs to be said and nothing more. It is perfect; just like the film.