DVD: The Wrestler
Theatrical Release: December 2008
DVD Release: April 2009
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Ernest ?The Cat? Miller
Director: Darren Aronofsky
The Colossal Trash Heap at the Base of Mount Olympus
?I’m the one who was supposed to take care of everything. I’m the one who was supposed to make everything okay for everybody. It just didn’t work out like that . . . Now I’m an old, broken-down piece of meat. And I’m alone.?
Randy the Ram in The Wrestler
A heart attack ends Randy the Ram’s long wrestling career. Desperate for money he begs for more drudge work at the supermarket where the fascist boss repeatedly humiliates him.
As Randy is walking through the concrete halls of the building, his long blond ponytail crammed into a plastic shower cap, we hear the slow crescendo of the cheers echoing in his head, the cheers he used to hear on his way to pounding the lights out of some other brawny brute. He pauses for a moment at the screen before bursting through the plastic strips and into the deli section. The cheers abruptly die.
Contrary to his own expectations, Randy starts liking his job. He hams it up with the customers and actually does the job well. But on one particularly taxing day a customer recognizes him. Denying vehemently that he is in fact Randy the Ram, he is overwhelmed with anger and shame and suddenly quits. Come hell or high water, he’s getting back into wrestling.
If you dislike watching wrestling on television you’ll admire the totally appropriate antsy-jerksy up-close camera work in this movie. Many of the scenes take place against the most garish backdrops imaginable?a Day-Glo green cement wall, for example, or a tri-colour trailer, fitting frames for Rourke’s phenomenal dark mood rays.
Because this is a hero’s tale we must see Randy’s life as either a triumph or a tragedy. If It’s a triumph, then Randy is a romantic hero and death is his co-victor. If It’s a tragedy, then Randy is an existential hero and his story is the story of, as Edith Hamilton put it in The Greek Way, the suffering of a great soul: ?. . .through the suffering of a great soul given to us so simply and so powerfully, we know in it all human anguish and the mystery of pain.?
Randy as a father finds himself confronted with a problem common to women and to unskilled working men, which is that society demands and expects him to parent well even while refusing to provide any of the resources necessary to enable him to do so. He’s a bad parent, and It’s his fault.
In order to make a living the only way he knows how, he has to be away from home a lot, which damages his relationship with his daughter. So he gives up and runs away from his own perceived failure. This means that when he’s up against the wall he has no one to turn to with whom he’s built a relationship. Wrestling granted him good buds, but the necessity of hiding his weakness from them precludes them as a source of solace.
Part of the human dilemma is the longing to be great, to be admired, to be washed in waves of love by seas of adoring worshipers. We shouldn’t harshly judge those who carry this longing on their sleeves; generally, they have been driven to it by frequent assaults on their egos while they were too young to defend themselves. Besides, this need, as often as It’s called neurotic, has blessed our culture ad infinitum. (If you can’t accept that the wrestling cult has blessed our culture, you can at least agree that a number of films on wrestling have been highly illuminating.)
The world of wrestling is full of gut-wrenching pain, streams of illicit drugs, terrible health risks, and financial distress (no, wrestling does not pay well). But in the world of wrestling you’ll find camaraderie, mutual respect, a thrill ride, and a few moments of glory. When he leaves this world Randy must face the fact that he’s just a working-class schlub who can’t, much as he tries, keep his hands off anything that might ease his suffering. On the one hand the glorious but ultimately sham realm of pretend, on the other a solid but horrifying actuality.
And what does a god do who’s abdicated all that matters?love, family, friends?in his quest for worship, only to be driven by fame to the brink of death? He turns his back on his former divinity. He schleps down to the base of Mount Olympus and wades through the refuse of ordinary life?that is, the crap that the world has designated for one such as him.
But the crap overwhelms him. He’s too fragile for it, if only because his years of notoriety have inflated his ego and rendered it brittle. And maybe It’s not the crap itself but the awful truth that the crap is what society has chosen for guys like him. So what does he do? He flips the bird to the petty, cruel, banal society that bears down on his soul, and he climbs back up to the mountaintop knowing it’ll kill him.
The Wrestler manifests five of The Mindful Bard’s criteria for movies well worth seeing: 1) it is authentic, original, and delightful; 2) it confronts existing injustices; 3) it displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering; 4) it inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation; and 5) it poses and admirably responds to questions which have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
The Bard could use some help scouting out new material. If you discover any books, compact disks, or movies which came out in the last twelve months and which you think fit the Bard’s criteria, please drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org. If I agree with your recommendation, I’ll thank you online.