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For passionate Darren Aronofsky fans like myself the acclaimed director's decision to make a film about a washed-up professional wrestler seemed an odd, even unwelcome choice.
With his first three films Aronofsky had carved a unique place for himself within cinema. His debut picture, 1998's "Pi" told the story of Maximilian Cohen (Sean Gullette,) a mathematician slowly being driven insane. The film's unique black and white photography and quick-cutting visual sensibility put the young director on cinephiles' radars but it was his second feature, 2000's "Requiem for a Dream" that truly established Aronofsky as one of Generation X's most consequential filmmakers.
The intense drug drama featured an Oscar-nominated performance by Ellen Burstyn and a climax so overwhelming and disturbing that the picture had to be released unrated when the MPAA condemned it with an NC-17. Aronofsky's unique vision, intellectual themes, and exciting visual style continued with 2006's "The Fountain," an experimental science fiction film with three interrelated narratives.
So what on earth would this director be doing making a movie about pro wrestling of all things? How would this fit in with his previous pictures? The answer isn't obvious until you actually see this amazing film, one worthy to stand alongside his previous successes as an equal.
Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) might as well be a dinosaur. The aging pro wrestler used to be at the top of the food chain. During the 1980s his match with wrestling villain the Ayatollah (Ernest Miller) sold out Madison square garden. Now well into his ‘50s Randy still has his trademark bleach blond long hair and overly tanned body. But he's no longer the king.
He lives in a trailer and is continually so far behind in his rent that his manager often changes the locks on him. His daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) despises him for his absence during her childhood. His life consists of menial labor at a grocery store during the week, trips to the strip club at night, and attempts to relive the glory days on the weekend when he participates in independent wrestling matches, often of a "hardcore" variety. Some of these wrestling sequences almost recall the darkest scenes of "Requiem" as they feature two performers degrading themselves as they're surrounded by chanting fans demanding more.
As the film progresses Ram struggles with his drug addiction and his estrangement from his daughter. He also finds companionship in Pam (Marisa Tomei,) a stripper. The two seem to share a common bond in their occupations. Both get up on the stage and perform, presenting extreme, destructive, visions of masculinity and femininity. Throughout the film Ram must struggle with his body as his health begins to impair his ability to do the one thing that gives him any joy in his life. Finally a rematch with his old rival, the Ayatollah -- now a used car salesman in Arizona - offers him a chance to truly regain the fame of his career peak in the ‘80s. But can his body take the abuse?
Aronofsky's films have frequently eschewed strong characters. "Pi" was not a film one watched for its protagonist. "Requiem," though having a heartbreaking turn by Burstyn, was principally a visual experience - an agonizing sensory overload. "The Fountain" had a touching love story but was ultimately more poem with an almost universal lead character than a traditional narrative. With "The Wrestler" Aronofsky tones down his visual tricks - as effective and exciting as they are - and focuses us on a career-defining performance by Rourke. The film's frequent visual refrain is to enforce this by literally following Randy around from the back wherever he might be wandering. Aronofsky gets us up close and personal with this very broken, very flawed, very human protagonist.
What could have driven Aronofsky to this character and this story? What links together the mad mathematician of "Pi," the hopeless drug addicts of "Requiem," the conquistador/scientist/astronaut of "The Fountain," and now Randy the Ram of "The Wrestler?" The answer that I come to is one that I wrote about in a recent book review. In each film we find characters on a quest to unite with God, destroying themselves in the process. "Pi" is laden with spiritual themes as the mathematician has found an algorithm desired by both Wall Street bankers and Hassidic Jews. He eventually becomes self destructive as the chaos overwhelms him. "Requiem" is principally about people losing themselves in drugs and destroying themselves as they replace their dreams with the pursuit of the next fix. And "The Fountain," Aronofsky's most explicitly spiritual film, combines the narratives of a conquistador's quest for the Garden of Eden, the scientist's pursuit of immortality, and the astronaut's cosmic journey to Xibalba, a nebula in outer space representative of the Mayan underworld.
And now with "The Wrestler" we have the journey of a character who seeks to escape the failures of his personal life through the glory of the ring, the one place where he could bring others joy in his performances. Early on in the film the Christ narrative is made explicit when Pam quotes scripture and then encourages Ram to see "The Passion of the Christ." (And some of the wrestling matches are so vicious and disturbing that Mel Gibson's picture should come to mind.) It's no coincidence that in one of the most bloody wrestling matches Ram is pierced with a staple gun three times before being stabbed with a fork. Only Aronofsky could give us a spiritual film about pro wrestling.
How many of these small, independent movies does Aronofsky have to make before Hollywood will realize he's Generation X's Stanley Kubrick - a visually brilliant, thematically rich auteur capable of drawing career peak performances from his actors? Aronofsky is now 40 years old and has made four features. When Kubrick was that age he'd made such classics as "Paths of Glory," "Spartacus," "Lolita," and "Dr. Strangelove." And the best was yet to come. The same will be true of Aronofsky. What was Kubrick's next picture at that age? In 1968, Kubrick made film history with "2001: A Space Odyssey." He'd follow it with "A Clockwork Orange" and "The Shining." If Kubrick's career is any guide then we're just getting started with Aronofsky. The next few years should be very exciting as we see what he comes up with next.