Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)

After the cursed outcome of Darren Aronofsky's passion project The Fountain (2008) the director now approaches his next project with a barebones guerrilla style of filmmaking distancing himself from the burdens of a high end production. Whereas The Fountain had a complex narrative that spanned a thousand years and relied on special effects to tell its story, The Wrestler focusses on one man's life and adopts a semi-documentary nature of shooting. 

The man's life in question is Randy 'The Ram' Robinson  - a former wrestling big shot whose life has taken a turn for the worse. He now plays low-key gigs in venues such as town halls and social clubs, over everything else in his life we learn Randy's true love in life is his job, he cherishes it and refuses to give it up despite his ever ageing body telling him otherwise. Aronofsky's films have always exclusively dealt with obsession and the frailty of the human condition; his protagonists battle against the duality of body and mind with the body caving in under the extreme pressure of the mind. The Wrestler is no different as we witness Randy's body put through incredible strains and mutilations in hardcore matches at his mind's resilience to retire. After Randy suffers a severe heart attack after a match the doctors tell him he cannot carry on wrestling, if he does he will not survive again. Randy is played perfectly by Mickey Rourke, the casting is a stroke of genius due to Rourke's tragic fall from the top as an 80s icon as well as his brief boxing career. In a film this focussed on realism Rourke's performance is entirely immersive as he hardly needs to act as Randy - he is Randy.

When we start to follow Randy in life outside the ring it is painfully obvious why he loves with his profession so much; inside the ring he is adored by the fans, he is understood in (and understands) the pantomime world of wrestling, he can be the hero, and the beatings he receives inside the ring are nothing on the pain life throws at him outside the ropes. 

Randy lives in a trailer park in just about bearable conditions, he works at a supermarket in the warehouses and moonlights as a wrestler after hours - this still isn't enough to pay the rent as we see early on his landlord confiscating his keys until he pays up. Randy sleeps in the back of his van and is awoken in the morning by the locals children who adore Randy, they want to play fight him and he amuses them. We soon learn Randy has an estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) as he talks to his friend Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) a local stripper who Randy is very fond of and confides in. As Cassidy helps Randy go about reconciling with his daughter after many years the two become closer than imagined. As things seem to be going well with both the women in his life things take a turn for the worse, some reasons not Randy's fault but ultimately we can tell from his hinted past that this is a self destructive and immature man that has caused himself and others more harm than he ever set out to inflict. Randy is not a selfish or nasty human, he is simply a loser but an endearing one at that.

The camera is always right in the face of Randy, it sticks to him, following him like a research subject - never judging but simply observing. The vérité approach of the film holds realism as its first objective and generally works throughout; however, there are some moments in the story that Aronofsky's direction and script seem at odds. These occur in some of the script's more emotionally heightened scenes. Aronofsky has always had a talent for matching the perfect visual language for the story he's telling and he's right on the money with his stripped back reality based approach,  only this means that when the film reaches certain levels of melodramatics the performances feel rather awkward. Most notably when Randy meets is daughter after having let her down once again, he has to convince her to give him another chance and she's having none of it. The exchanges between these two highly talented actors should work but feels forced and out of place in this particular film that's seemingly focussed on naturalism. The script is also very clumsy in terms of its symbolism too; whereas we the audience could surely draw our own observations of Randy as a Christ figure and his life echoing that of Christ in certain regards, it chooses instead force its allegorical notions down our throats. As Cassidy (his Magdalene) openly talks to Randy about The Passion of the Christ (2004) and compares their wounds and suffering it feels so contrived and almost offensive that the writer's couldn't let us draw our own insights into their story's insights. 

Still, these are small contrivances that are more irritating than harming to the overall quality of the film and by now we shouldn't come to expect subtlety from the director of Requiem for a Dream (2000) - though the film does require some smoother edges. 

It would be easy to judge Darren Aronofsky for going soft on us, after all this is a sports movie with a sympathetic character at its core. It's a relief then that The Wrestler is far from mainstream schmaltz. It is an honest depiction of a sport that has produced some extremely tragic characters over the years  - scenes such as Randy attending a 'legends' signing is purely heartbreaking. It is also more universally a story of a man unable to cope with the realities of life, spending most of his life running from responsibility and trying has hard as he can to live in the past, his 'golden' years. As Randy and Cassidy talk music over  beer they share their love for 80s greats Guns N' Roses and Motley Crue, Randy comments that those were the days and then Kurt Cobain had to come along and ruin it all. Of course the 80s was all about sex, drugs, and partying - fun without regard - what Cobain and the 90s grunge scene represented was angst and the cruel realities of life. I think that says it all.

The Wrestler is largely a realised film, one that touches even if its desperate attempts are often carelessly transparent. The mirroring of Randy and Cassidy is well handled and an important asset to the story; both are teetering on becoming obsolete as their psychical careers corrode along with their bodies. The film's climax as Randy enters the ring once again is also incredibly well executed if not a slightly predictable but the results are hauntingly powerful and left me cold - unable to move as Bruce Springsteen began playing over the credits.