Wrestling with Aging & Death in Darren Aronofsky’s Tale of Redemption
A man with long blonde hair that wears worn-out spandex pants is on the top rope in a wrestling ring as he is about to finish his opponent with a diving head butt called “Ram Jam”. Fans cheer as they watch this aging behemoth named Randy “The Ram” Robinson finish off an opponent to great adulation. It’s a moment that Randy lives for which is the cheers and love from a crowd that has stood by him even though his glory days back in the 1980s is long gone. With blood and sweat dripping from his head, he returns to the locker room being praised with a smaller applause by younger wrestlers who adore this revered but washed-up veteran.
It’s a scene from Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler that emphasizes a man who is still doing the things he’s done more than 20 years. Now, he’s working the independent pro wrestling circuits in New Jersey as well as part-time work at a supermarket just trying to get by while living in a trailer park and drives a beat-up van. It’s a lot told early in the film as Aronofsky only reveals glimpses of Randy’s hey-day through flyers and posters in the opening credits as Quiet Riot’s Bang Your Head blares through. Then, the film cuts to this man that was a big star in the 1980s suddenly looking battered as Aronofsky wisely doesn’t show his face for about the first five to ten minutes of the film.
It is followed by a moment where Randy returns to his home in a trailer park as it’s locked because he couldn’t pay his rent. He has to sleep in his van as it’s an indication of the life that he’s living. Whereas other wrestlers from his hey-day sort of have it together whether it’s finding a life outside of wrestling where they’ve become profitable or have managed to save their money wisely and remain legends. Unfortunately for Randy, he is not one of those old men that would often pop up on a World Wrestling Entertainment TV program to be celebrated and revered by fans. He is among those who continually abuses his body by performing for a bunch of people as it would eventually lead to health problems.
The harrowing scenes of men on wheelchairs, some with lost body parts, or having to carry something as they along with Randy do meet-and-greet for wrestling fans as the numbers of these fans start to dwindle. It’s part of the harsh reality that Aronofsky creates as he wisely doesn’t linger on these other men as he sees what Randy is seeing. It’s an indication of what might happen to Randy if he wasn’t facing certain death. What is more startling is how realistic Aronofsky chose to portray the film as he is often know for creating films that were far more complex with elements of surrealism.
While earlier films like Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain were films that had ambitions with their storylines as well as Aronofsky’s fascination with the human struggle for acceptance and reach something that is impossible. The Wrestler would mark a creative turning point for Aronofsky after the disappointing reception he received for his 2006 sci-fi drama The Fountain that was notorious for its troubled production. Wanting to aim for something that was simpler and didn’t rely a lot on visual effects or any visual tricks. It would be in a script written by Robert D. Smigel, a former editor of the news satire publication called The Onion, that would give Aronofsky a chance to go back to his early film roots as well as reach back to his love for professional wrestling.
The 1980s wrestling boom period, in which saw the end of the regional territories that defined the 1960s and 1970s, was definitely a brief period in which professional wrestling entered the world of popular culture. On one spectrum, there was Vince McMahon Jr.’s World Wrestling Entertainment (then World Wrestling Federation) that was more about entertainment than wrestling. Yet, it would feature such major stars as Hulk Hogan, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Andre the Giant, “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka, and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat that defined these larger than life figures.
On the other spectrum in the American South was Jim Crockett’s Promotion for the National Wrestling Alliance that featured a much more stripped down yet hard knocks approach to pro wrestling. Figures such as “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair with his Four Horsemen, Magnum TA, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, The Fabulous Freebirds, and the Road Warriors were guys that talked the talk and could also kick some ass along the way. While there were other promotions like the American Wrestling Association, it was a really great time for pro wrestling fans were competition between the companies were fierce leading to the more intense Monday Night War period between WWE and Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (that came from Jim Crockett Promotions and the NWA) of 1995-2001.
While the film didn’t feature any of Randy’s hey-day of that period except through posters shown in the opening credits. It is clear he is trying to hold on to that claim to fame but those days are far long and gone. Having to spend money on painkillers, tans, and other things to keep up the battered physique. He would also blow his money on off-days by going to a local strip club to have a few beers and converse with a stripper named Cassidy while she gives him lap dances. Like Randy, Cassidy is a woman on her way out because of her age as she is also a single mother where the two share a bond over their age as well as their love for 80s hard rock bands in a very fun scene later in the film.
That love of the 1980s and disdain of the 1990s is a truly shared reflection of everything that had happened to the career of the man who plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Mickey Rourke. Rourke was definitely one of the hottest actors of the 80s who had appeared in numerous films like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat, Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish, Barry Levinson’s Diner, Stuart Rosenberg’s The Pope of Greenwich Village, Adrian Lyne’s 9 ½ Weeks, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, and appearing in a trio of films by Michael Cimino such as the notorious flop Heaven’s Gate, Year of the Dragon, and a remake of William Wyler’s 1955 film Desperate Hours. Despite being loved by critics, actors, and film buffs, Rourke also maintained a difficult persona as his acting career faded in the early 1990s with a series of flop that culminated with a big-budgeted Hollywood blockbuster bomb in Simon Wincer’s Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man with Don Johnson playing the latter.
Rourke would take a break from acting to forge a boxing career where he maintained a decent record of six wins and two draws though he would eventually return to acting. Despite being loved by younger actors, Rourke’s career in the 1990s wasn’t going anywhere despite notable appearances in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker and Vincent Gallo’s directorial debut in Buffalo ‘66 along with work in Terrence Malick’s 1998 masterpiece The Thin Red Line though Rourke’s performance, like Jason Patric among others, was cut out of the final film. The unexpected happen in the 2000s were Rourke was slowly making a comeback in films like Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory, Jonas Akerlund’s Spun (that saw him reunite in a scene with Pope co-star Eric Roberts), and appear in two Robert Rodriguez films in Once Upon a Time in Mexico and an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City.
While he would get attention for these roles, notably Sin City, it would take a lot more for Rourke to really get himself back in the good graces of the film industry. It would be Aronofsky that would come in to show his support for Rourke as he wanted him to play the part. Though Nicolas Cage was set for that part, Cage was also a fan of Rourke as he stepped aside in order to support Rourke. It would also be Aronofsky who would have the balls to tell Rourke about this role as he would make fuckin’ sure that Rourke would give the performance of a lifetime.
Helping Rourke to prepare for the role of a pro wrestler would be Afa Anoa’i of the Wild Samoans tag team that also had their hey-day in the 1980s working for the WWE. Though there would be a stuntman to do some scenes for the film, Rourke’s work with Anoa’i would pay off as he would actually wrestle in front of wrestling fans for various wrestling organizations with real wrestlers. Notably the brutal hardcore match with Necro Butcher that is one of the film’s most gruesome moments. While it’s a very key scene that’s inter-cut with Randy exhausted and getting stitches and other things cleaned up. It’s a scene that emphasize the kind of punishment that Rourke would do to play this battered character who shouldn’t be in a match that is very brutal.
It’s the moment in the film where everything is set to change where after getting some medical attention, Randy’s life would change with a heart attack as he passes out and wakes up to realize he’s in a hospital. It’s where the film has changed where Randy’s life is also about to change as the chance for a comeback in a rematch against an old rival is now unlikely to happen. Having to look at the scar on his heart and then trying to jog in order to prepare for this match. It becomes very clear that Randy won’t have a lot of time left as Aronofsky and Smigel set the tone for a very grim drama.
While it’s territory that Aronofsky had explored in his previous films, they were all presented in a stylized fashion. With this film, Aronofsky strips it all down by almost going for a very cinema verite style courtesy of cinematographer Maryse Alberti. Yet, he would also find a way to bring some very touching and light-hearted moments all thanks to Smigel’s screenplay. Notably in the relationship between Randy and Cassidy as they would bond together in and out of the strip club as both of them reveal to have very different real names. Though Cassidy would have issues of getting too close to Randy, probably due to her own tumultuous relationship with men, she would aid Randy in re-connecting with his estranged daughter Stephanie in the aftermath of his heart attack.
The character of Cassidy might seem like a play on the stripper with a heart of gold but Aronofsky and Smigel didn’t want the character to be another stereotype of characters that had been seen before. In getting Marisa Tomei, whom Aronofsky had known for some years, they would get someone who would add a new dimension to that character. Notably as Tomei went through a similar professional struggle that Rourke did after her Oscar-winning supporting performance in 1992’s My Cousin Vinny due to unusual film choices as well as trying to appease herself to Hollywood. Tomei was also embarking on a comeback thanks to films like Todd Field’s In the Bedroom and Sidney Lumet’s final film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
Tomei’s performance is definitely entrancing to watch as this woman who goes through the same struggle of aging like Randy. Young men who go to strip clubs want lap dances from younger strippers even though she still has an incredible body. Yet, she has a child to support as there isn’t a lot that she can do as she’s performing to men that are just not interested in her with the exception of Randy. Tomei’s performance is one that is filled with a lot of charm, grit, and warmth as she plays a character that could’ve been a love interest. Instead, Tomei, with Smigel’s script and Aronofsky’s caring direction, allows the character to be a whole lot more than that as it’s a performance that would give Tomei another Oscar nomination as well as a major boost in her career.
Randy’s willingness to find solace in someone over his new reality would eventually have him to try and make amends with his estranged daughter Stephanie, played by Evan Rachel Wood. Yet, she wants nothing to do with him considering the fact that he abandoned her as he would later make a second visit with a present as the two for a moment would share a bond together. It is in Rourke’s very understated yet heartbreaking performance in which Randy reveals that he did mess up and he understands Stephanie’s anger but doesn’t want her to hate him. For a brief moment, it seems like a father-daughter reconciliation is going to happen.
Yet, this is an Aronofsky film where he doesn’t play by the rules. Since Randy has a hard time trying to fit in with the real world as he works in supermarkets. He has to be called by his real name Robin as a deli worker where it starts off fine at first. Still, the constant humiliation from his asshole boss and rude customers that culminates with one recognizing him has him quitting his job. Randy’s loneliness and his ability to fuck things up would eventually break whatever chance of reconciliation he would have with his daughter. It’s all part of what Aronofsky and Smigel do to emphasize Randy’s flaws as a man. Even though he means well and wants to do right, there’s an element in him that will destroy everything.
This of course would have him make the decision to go back in the ring despite all of the warnings about his health. Yet, what is there for him to do? He can’t go out there and do menial jobs that he’s either over-qualified or under-qualified for while being recognized for what he once was. He already lost his daughter who doesn’t want to see him again. He just ruined whatever closeness he has with a stripper he is friends with. All of that uncertainty would lead him back to the one thing he loved doing though it is clear that he might die in doing this match. The only person that would come to see him is Cassidy but under her real name which is Pam.
She would reluctantly watch him, briefly, as he goes back to the ring where he is accepted by the fans where he would give a great speech about the fact that he loves being a wrestler. Just as he would face his great nemesis in the Ayatollah (played by Ernest “The Cat” Miller) where things seemed fine. It is clear that Randy is hurting as he’s about to have a heart attack. Yet, he refuses to give in knowing that if he’s going to go out. He’s going to out his way as the last image shown in the film is Randy flying up in the air for his Ram Jam and that’s it as it cuts to the closing credits with Bruce Springsteen’s somber title song playing.
Aronofsky’s decision to end the film ambiguously was so that he wouldn’t play with audience’s expectations. There’s definitely an element of death that looms though the close-up that Aronofsky puts into Randy’s face represents everything that he’s about. He may be battered. He may be broken. He is probably seconds away from death. Yet, this is his idea of what Heaven is and what it should be. It’s a moment where Randy is grateful to have these last seconds as he’s in tears for what is about to happen. Still, it’s tears of joy that is in display as the fans are cheering for him to do the Ram Jam on the Ayatollah. These are the moments that life is worth living for. Even if it’s that man’s final seconds.
Of all the films that Aronofsky made, which includes 2010’s Black Swan, The Wrestler is definitely Aronofsky’s most accessible film. While it may not have been as harrowing and as complex as earlier films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream as well as the hypnotic-psychological drama of Black Swan. The reason The Wrestler seems to connect with an audience is because it’s about a form of entertainment that is still vibrant and still has fans despite the fact that many of those wrestlers in the 80s have either retired or are still punishing themselves in the ring. More importantly, it gave voice to those men and women who were stars in the 80s who were probably struggling after the limelight faded. Yet, it would also prove that their fans no matter how big or small have never forgotten them. Thanks to conventions like WrestleReunion and the WWE Hall of Fame ceremonies that precedes Wrestlemania. Fans can get a chance to see the old wrestlers and give thanks to them.
If the film was able to say thanks to the wrestling stars of the 80s, it also would revive the fortunes of Mickey Rourke. Despite winning various Best Actor honors and getting an Oscar nomination, he lost to Sean Penn for Gus Van Sant’s Milk though Penn has acknowledged Rourke as an influence. Still, it was Rourke that triumphed as he was given the role of his career and would even have his own Wrestlemania moment by knocking out Chris Jericho following a match that had Jericho mock older wrestlers including Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat to thunderous applause.
The Wrestler is the film that affirms Darren Aronofsky’s place as one of the best filmmakers working today. If it wasn’t for this film, its follow-up companion piece in Black Swan would have never been made though they’re both stylistically-different films. Still, it’s the film that proved that there’s a lot to Aronofsky than just stylized ideas. It also proves that Mickey Rourke is back and will show younger actors how it’s done. Yet, Rourke’s speech at the 2009 Independent Spirit Awards says it all about how a young director was willing to take a chance on someone like him and have the balls to tell him to take this part as if it was his final role. Rourke took that chance and ultimately gave his most career-defining performance. That is why a film like The Wrestler connects not just for fans of Aronofsky, Rourke, and wrestling fans. It’s a film that connects because it has a story where everyone can root for one man doing what he loves in what could be his final moment.
© thevoid99 2012