A huge, hulking man sits half-dressed with his back to us, in a dirty locker room. He is old for an athlete, and we can see the ravages on his body even as we don’t see his face clearly. Cuts and bruises, open sores and scars and scabs and faded tattoos, and long, stringy, bleached-blonde hair with the roots showing. As he sits, hunched over, we can hear him wheezing, coughing, hacking, spitting, groaning. We can tell he has been through a physical ordeal. It seems he is sitting there, trying to recover, gathering his strength, but he is not restless. He does not seem eager to go anywhere. He is quiet and still, almost as if savoring the moment. Like this is what he lives for, because this is when he really feels something, even if it is pain. A much younger man, scrawnier, walks hesitantly into the room, also with his back to us. He says something like, “Great show, champ, really.” Then we see the smaller man hand some folded-up bills to the ravaged warrior, even while he apologizes, “I thought the box office would be bigger than that. I really did.” And when he scurries hastily out of the room, the gnarled behemoth looks at the money as if with disdain, and then quietly puts it away. Another night’s work.
Thus begins “The Wrestler,” the high-impact Darren Aronofsky film about Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), former great, now hanging on by the edge of his cracked and split fingernails. We see “The Ram” as he really is, a ring persona, an entertainment spectacle. He shoots up steroids, then endures a punishing session with the aptly-named dumbbells. He’s locked out of his own trailer because he hasn’t been able to pay the rent. He goes to the door of the landlord/manager, knocking loudly but futilely, knowing there’s no use, and resignedly curls up to sleep in the back of his beat-up van. There, he sees pictures of himself in his former glory, younger, stronger, more vigorous. When he wakes up, there are children shaking the van---the trailer park kids want him to come and play “Monster” with them, roaring and pretending to “get” them, and they shout with glee, and just for a few moments, he enjoys himself. But then he spots the landlord, he has to go take care of business, and he lumbers off, apologizing to the boys, and they scatter and disperse behind him like all his relationships. And he’s alone again. Naturally.
We never find out anything about a wife, or even a girlfriend. The closest thing he has to a love interest is “Cassidy” (Marisa Tomei), except that’s her stage name in the “Cheeks” topless bar, and we only find out later that her real name is Pam. She greets him warmly, she takes his money, she smiles at him and moves on to the next customer. And sadly, that, for him, is the only tender female contact he knows. The only other women he sees are the faceless ones screaming in the stands at the wrestling matches, or the faceless ones behind the counter at work, where he lifts boxes off delivery trucks at a discount store. His boss is a skinny little nerd who makes fun of his pseudo-celebrity employee (“Gonna go wear tights and sit on some other man’s face this weekend?”), but Randy (don’t call me by my real name) quietly takes it, as more of the punishment he is trained to endure.
The macho, sadistic/masochistic cycle is reinforced in the testosterone-filled locker room where the wrestlers meet beforehand to greet one another with strength and manliness, and to acknowledge some form of abbreviated script for their matchup that evening: face slap, flip, body slam, there’s a series of orchestrated violence that they all know, and then there’s Randy’s “signature move”: the Ram-Jam, where he climbs up on the top rope, and leaps down onto his prone opponent for the final, dramatic pin. Of course, for now, he still gets to play the good guy, the winner. But everyone knows his prime is past, and his time is soon coming to a close. So there’s a smell of desperation about him, behind the bravura façade, and the other wolves sense that he’s wounded, and know that his time among them is short. And so they still give him some deference. At least on the surface. Beyond that, they aren’t really friends.
Yes, there’s a daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), but she’s estranged. As “Ram” tries feebly and agonizingly to connect with her, and to “Cassidy,” we are watching a strong man crumble with helplessness and ineptitude. And we grieve for him, though the last thing he would want is our pity.
“The Wrestler” is the kind of dark, brooding, guttural movie that many genteel people will instinctively avoid. But if they do, they will be missing a masterpiece of storytelling, and a couple of strong acting performances that will linger in the memory long after the echoes of the screaming-for-blood crowd have trailed off into the distance.
Questions For Discussion:
1) Cassidy quotes the Suffering Servant Song in Isaiah to Randy, about being wounded and battered, a scene which has already attracted outrage in some Christian circles. Is it possible to quote scripture inappropriately?
2) The parallel and intertwining stories of the aging topless dancer and the old, beat-up wrestler underscore our culture’s obsession with youth, strength, and beauty. Where are maturity, wisdom, and experience more valued commodities?
3) What is the basis for the popularity of wrestling, when everybody knows it’s fake athleticism? In strip clubs, when everybody knows it’s fake eroticism?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace Church,