The Wrestler

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson is a man hopelessly stuck in time. He’s a man living on past glories, unable to forge a future of any kind. As a result he’s doomed to live a life of poverty and doomed to debase himself in an effort to try and recapture some of the old magic. He’s a dinosaur who knows he’s a dinosaur, but he’s quite happy with that fact – it’s the world that changed and fucked itself up.

In one scene we see Randy playing a video game with a neighbourhood kid. But they don’t play a Wii or a Playstation 3. Instead they play on an NES. The reason for this is because this system has a wrestling game that has Randy on it. Because of his ego and his quiet narcissism, Randy couldn’t contemplate playing a more recent game. When he stopped being part of the mainstream, everything became irrelevant.

This attitude is echoed in a scene where Randy has a drink with Cassidy, a stripper who he’s hoping to start a relationship with. They talk about music and about how great Motley Crue and Guns ‘n’ Roses were. And then they discuss how awful the 90s were and how Kurt Cobain was a giant pussy. Now whether that’s the truth or not doesn’t matter. What matters is Randy’s inability to evolve as a person. Most people’s tastes change as they age. They discover new things and re-evaluate the things they used to like. But because the 90s coincided with a slump in Randy’s career, the decade, and everything in it, automatically sucks. Nostalgia constantly clouds Randy’s head.

Illustrating how dangerous this sort of nostalgia is, is a scene where Randy goes to a mini wrestling convention. It’s a terribly depressing affair. There are a bunch of old grapplers begging for scraps from their loyal fans – this is their pension fund. And everywhere Randy is reminded of the degeneration and decay that follows them around. One guy has an ankle bag connected to a catheter and another is in a wheelchair. Randy knows what could lie in wait for him, but seeing as he lives hand to mouth, and seeing as he’s not really qualified to do anything else, he knows that he must continue punishing his body.

However, Randy does try and make a living elsewhere. He has a job in a supermarket. And here we have some of the funniest and some of the most depressing moments. It’s fun to see Randy getting into his job (he works on the deli counter and begins to joke about with his customers) but it’s excruciating to see him get bullied by his dweeb of a boss – the guy mocks his wrestling career, saying that all he does is sit on other men’s faces. Wrestling is hardly a noble profession, and yes it’s ridiculous, but it’s also an incredibly tough way to make a living. And knowing this, and knowing how easily he could cripple his arsehole boss, you constantly want Randy to beat the guy up. You want him to do an Iron Sheik and break his back and make him humble. So it’s a crowd pleasing moment when Randy finally has enough and quits his crappy job.

But the scenes at the deli counter are also interesting for the way that we see Randy interact with people. What Randy lives for is approval. He wants to hear the crowd roar and he wants them to chant his name. So his job on the deli counter begins as a sort of performance. He’s trying to replace the thrill of a wrestling audience with something on a smaller scale. It works for a little while. Well, until the customers begin being a pain in the arse.

There’s also an excellent bit of filming before Randy makes his first appearance on the deli counter. We see him getting dressed and then we follow him through the building. For anyone who’s grown up on wrestling shows, this will immediately remind them of Raw or Smackdown or Nitro. And then to further highlight the similarities, just before Randy goes through the ‘curtain’, we hear the cheer of a crowd. Randy is trying to replace the irreplaceable – nothing will ever equal the thrill of going before a massive crowd. After entertaining thousands of people, everything else is destined to be an anti-climax.

The wrestling scenes themselves are disappointingly few, but they’re expertly filmed. They begin with a rather ordinary match but then we have a crazy hardcore bout. Here we have Randy, who doesn’t seem to be the hardcore type, debasing himself for a few extra dollars. We see him and his opponent get thrown through glass, get tied up in barbed wire and even have staples shot into their chests. It’s barbaric stuff.

But the way that all of this is deconstructed is excellent. We see Randy’s injuries and then we see the sections of the match that caused them. You quickly begin to wonder how a human being can sustain this. And then when you realise that men do this night after night for nothing more than gas money, you begin to question your complicity in it. Yes I love wrestling – I love the silliness of it, the theatricality and, yes, the bloody violence – but the toll that it has on the human body is amazing. We’re basically paying to see men get slowly crippled. Because even though wrestling matches are pre-determined, they’re still incredibly violent. I mean, a chair shot on the head is a chair shot on the head. And when you consider the fact that these men wrestle full schedules, you wonder how they manage to get through it.

The answer to that is they use drugs. And in one scene we see Randy buy a whole cocktail of what the Iron Sheik would call medicine. It’s nice to see that the film doesn’t pussyfoot around the ugly side of the business.

Unfortunately, though, the film has some hokey melodrama at the centre of the plot. You see, Randy, after the hardcore match, has a heart attack and is ordered not to wrestle. If he wrestles again, he could have another heart attack and die. So that’s why he tries to make an honest living in the supermarket. But although something like this is actually a good possibility for a wrestler – far too many have died of heart disease because of all the drugs they take – it still feels like a contrived plot device. It feels like it’s trying too hard to add pathos.

For instance, at the end, we have Randy returning to the ring to fight a match. You’re asked to question whether he’s going to survive it. Is he going to drop down and die? But the film doesn’t need this. Because of his desire to get back in the ring and feed some more on the adulation of an adoring wrestling crowd, Randy squanders two real relationships. He squanders the chance to make up with his daughter and he loses the chance to have a meaningful relationship with Cassidy, the stripper he befriends. Randy prefers to live a life of make believe. He doesn’t really want a real relationship with all the confusion and heartache that comes with it. He wants the simple, illusory relationship he has with his audience. He hits a move and they cheer. It’s joyously uncomplicated – for him, it makes sense.

So therefore, knowing that he’s fucked up his life by being such a knuckle-head, we don’t really need the added melodrama of ‘will he live or will he die?’ But regardless, the film gives it to us anyway. And it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t resolve the issue. The film ends with Randy struggling to the top rope so that he can hit his finishing move. It’s most definitely curtains for him (if he doesn’t die, he’s probably never going to be able to wrestle again), but because the set-up is a little hackneyed, it’s not as moving as it should have been. The ending would have had more weight if this was simply a man unable to relinquish a past life with the hopes of a meaningful future shattered. But instead the film has a kind of soap opera ending. And although, yes, wrestling is soap opera, the real lives behind them are far more strange and bewildering.

I also wasn’t particularly taken with the scenes with Randy’s daughter. Evan Rachel Wood was a little bland and everything felt a little overly familiar. But thankfully you have Mickey Rourke to pull you through these scenes. He’s marvellous in the film. His Randy ‘The Ram’ is a pathetic, loveable, frustrating waster. As he says, he’s an old piece of meat. All he can do, much like the stripper he befriends, is sell his body to an eager public. He doesn’t know anything else. And rather miserably, he loves the people that are destroying him. The relationship with the crowd becomes almost sado-masochistic – as he prepares to perhaps dive to his death, he tearfully relishes the cheers. It’s a wonderfully bleak portrait of a man crashing and burning, and Rourke gives it the humanity it needs.

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