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The Wrestler

There are doubtless people who, watching Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, will shake their heads sadly and murmur about the "bad choices" that Robin (Mickey Rourke) and Pam (Marisa Tomei) have made in their lives. But it is difficult to behold their dispiriting North Jersey environment, in which the only handsome artefact is a ruined seaside casino, and to imagine where the inspiration for better choices would really come from. One would have to hate their world in order to escape from it, but so long as they remain in it they are encouraged to keep making those bad choices day after day, staying in the game as long as their bodies hold out, collecting tips, fees, and, at least in Robin's case, soaking up the most degenerate applause that I have ever heard. Needless to say, they both require more piquant stage names (Randy and Cassidy), but whereas Pam leaves hers at Cheeks lounge, where she dances on a pole, Robin has all but forgotten that he is not Randy. The Wrestler makes The Gladiator look scripted by Trollope.

The Wrestler is a film that I should ordinarily avoid. The spectacle of grown men throttling one another, even if the brunt of the impact is understood to be simulated, revolts me; I cannot begin to understand what would motivate anyone to fight just for the sake of fighting and the chance to win nothing more than a fight. What I can imagine, all too well, is the physical agony to which fighters subject their bodies. Too many of my fellow creatures find boxing and wrestling entertaining for me to dismiss those activities as perverse, and as an ardent anti-prohibitionist I am stayed from wishing that they were illegal. So I am left with the conclusion that some people have an idea of self-respect that is unintelligible to me. I would like to work for a world in which the idea of winning a fight makes no sense to anyone. That would involve denaturing the lies that men tell themselves in order to make sense of fighting.

I had to shield my eyes more than a few times, but I tried not to flinch, because I was there in the theatre more or less as a journalist, intending to report on what has become, deservedly, a famous movie. I wanted to see what Mickey Rourke was like; I believe that I've only seen him once before, in Body Heat (an irritatingly unsatisfying film). Even more, I wanted to see the hugely gifted Marisa Tomei. Both actors are superb, and worth the pain of sitting through Mr Aronofsky's film. Mr Rourke's remarkable physique, encased in worn-and-torn skin, is a monument to the inevitable fragility of the human frame, and the actor inhabits his body with a mystified semi-consciousness that seems both plucky and unbearable at the same time. As for Ms Tomei, her way of registering momentary reservations and recognitions is even more anatomizing than Mr Rourke's contortions. The daylight in which Pam meets Randy to help him buy a present for his daughter is so unflattering that it lies beyond the violence of the wrestling mat: Pam's face incarnates the remainders of an emptily violent world. Also fine is Evan Rachel Wood, playing Randy's estranged daughter; Mr Aronofsky knows what to do with her silent-screen features, and how to get her to explode through them.

Although The Wrestler unfailingly portrays the backstage life of professional wrestlers as one of lighthearted camaraderie these guys really care about one another we're not allowed to forget that, for show, some of them, at least, will wield such appliances as loaded staple guns. The pervasive violence of The Wrestler emanates not from the fighters themselves but from the crowds that cheer them on. The staple gun, for example, is actually outclassed for horror by a prosthetic leg, which chanting fans urge Randy to use against an opponent whose head is already crowned by an inverted garbage can. The men crowding around the ring are not the same as the men who patronize Cheeks Lounge, but their enthusiasm for the show is hardly more estimable.

Although there is nothing overtly anti-American about The Wrestler, it is a shaming movie. (19 March 2009)

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