Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is a brilliantly poignant hybrid film that exists somewhere between the genres of a tragic drama and sports film, with a narrative concerning the struggles of a faded professional wrestling star, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), as he attempts to navigate the world outside the ring in the aftermath of a heart attack that forces him to retire. Not only functioning as an amazing career comeback for Mickey Rourke; The Wrestler is a definite nod towards the style of Aronofsky’s earlier films, arriving at an aesthetic appearance that would slot in perfectly amongst independent cinema.
Hardly a completely unique narrative, and in keeping with the atypical sports movie style, The Wrestler includes obvious references towards the likes of Raging Bull (1969) and Rocky (1976) through its incorporation of the downward spiral narrative made integral to fighting narratives by the former, and the likeability of a flawed former champion finessed by the latter. However, drawing these comparisons merely scratches the surface of what Aronofsky’s depiction of professional wrestling has to offer within its exploration of so-called ‘performance sport’ and unjustly sets it up for containing mere cliche. Rather than attempting to gloss over or invalidate the misconceptions of wrestling, Aronofsky openly embraces the dramatic staging and elements of facade so commonly associated with the profession, and as a result we are presented with a film that not only showcases the athleticism required within it, but one that highlights the severity of the physical and emotional toll placed upon its participants.
Shot over thirty-five days, and entirely in handheld shots (courtesy of Maryse Alberti), The Wrestler takes on the feeling of a documentary picture that lays bare the world of wrestling through its uncompromisingly brutal and explicit fight scenes and the unflattering reality of Randy’s experiences and struggles with the outside world. Despite such a quick shooting period, the film is relatively slow paced and escapes feeling as if it was frantically thrown together, which allows it to differentiate itself from other Aronofsky films regardless of its use of a similar dramatic orientation. This also allows the film to cultivate a pensive mood that contributes towards its overall sense of gravitas while also leaving the audience desperately welcoming the sparse moments of bleak humour to cut through the gloom.
The film’s pseudo-documentary atmosphere is only strengthened by Mickey Rourke’s performance, with the character taking on a distinctly naturalistic quality through his channelling of his own biography into the role, as well as his dedication to performing his own stunts and improvisations throughout. This results in a sense of realism that appears highly paradoxical when placed amongst the portrayal of the fake elements of wrestling—as on one hand, Randy isn’t really injured by having his head rammed into a metal post, but on the other he slices his own forehead with a concealed razor blade to look as if he has been. Through this conflation of facade and actuality, The Wrestler ultimately becomes an ultra-violent mime act in which everything is choreographed and rooted in reality all at once. The fighting may be fake, but it demands real blood as a consequence.
With all of its explicit brutality, the narrative is rescued from becoming wearisome in its toe-curling depictions of violence through its sub-plots. Both his non-existent relationship with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and his burgeoning romance with the middle-aged exotic dancer Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) act as signposts for a potential turnaround in Randy’s personal decline, whilst also helping to regulate the film’s momentum. True to the traditional sporting film formula; these sub-plots oscillate between a number of successes and failures that ultimately leave our protagonist struggling to turn down the allure of a comeback within the ring, and as these narrative strands begin to overlap with increasing frequency it becomes clear that Randy’s suffering is visceral as well as physical, with the emotional implications of rejection from either his daughter or love interest holding the potential to be catastrophic.
With all of these emotional factors, as well as an underpinning potential for disaster to strike at any moment within the interludes of hopefulness, it’s no surprise that The Wrestler‘s soundtrack is equally emblematic. Created by Clint Mansell—the composer behind the likes of Black Swan (2010) and Filth (2013)—much of the score is used for atmospheric purposes, which compliments the documentary-esque style of the film and juxtaposes beautifully with intermittent outbursts of 80s rock music. This not only acts as an enhancement of realism, but it also helps to orchestrate and manage the gravitas that ebbs and flows alongside Randy’s emotional and physical fluctuations right up to the film’s final shot.
Concluding with the traditional ‘last fight’ sequence of traditional sporting movies, Aronofsky risks ending The Wrestler on a highly cliched note. And this is true in a certain sense, with Randy’s downward spiral being littered throughout with signposts that foreshadow disaster in store. It’s in this final sequence that Maryse Alberti’s cinematography really comes into its own, with erratic whip pans shots and a distinct lack of steadiness to the handheld method working together to inject a frenetic quality to his last chance for redemption. And, despite incorporating the atypical moments of a ‘final fight’—such as an obvious glance into the crowd in search of moral support from a love interest—Aronofsky manages to skirt total predictability through his ability to bring together Randy’s emotional and physical suffering in the final moments, maintaining a high-octane energy until its final jump cut.
All in all, The Wrestler is a beautifully crafted portrait of a man struggling to patch his life together in the aftermath of losing his sole identifying characteristic. The violence, while extreme, balances out in the wake of the emotional rawness of Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s plight, becoming underpinned with a sentimentality that forces the audience to not only empathise with him, but to question their own sense of identity and personal achievements. It’s a heartbreaking film, made even more so by its abrupt and open ending that—while following its generic formula—seems to indicate that whether Randy receives glory or defeat, what lies in wait for him is just the same cycle of isolation, frustration, and gloom.