‘The real world is faker than professional wrestling.’
These are the playful words of Mick Foley, or, as you may know him better, Mankind. A mask-wearing, sock-wielding masochist who was once infamously thrown off a 16-foot cell by The Undertaker.
Yes, it is time to talk about the zany world of wrestling, but not as many of us know it. That is because director Darren Aronofsky, in 2008, decided to point his lens at a shadowy part of this multi-billion dollar industry.
Far from the bright lights and corporate atmosphere of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), a litany of performers, from young up-and-comers to grizzled veterans, toil away on the independent wrestling scene.
Previously spotlighted in Barry Blaustein’s fascinating documentary Beyond the Mat (1999), this grittier realm is largely marked by small audiences, unreliable pay-cheques and dingy locker rooms.
That is exactly where we find broken-down star of the 80’s Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (played by Mickey Rourke).
In one telling early scene, Randy hobbles and wheezes his way out of a venue, as Aronofsky’s camera pulls back to reveal his underwhelming surroundings. He is long separated from the big leagues of his chosen profession.
The Wrestler follows Randy as a heart attack forces him to reassess his reckless life – inside, outside and after the ring.
Aronofsky utilises a documentarian style with handheld cameras and natural light adding an unwavering sense of realism to the story.
He is also not afraid to lift the curtain on some of wrestling’s trade secrets. This includes Randy piecing together the details of his match backstage and preparing a ‘blade’ to draw his own blood in the ring.
For most of the film, Aronofsky’s camera trails behind Randy, as though the wrestler is constantly performing his ring walk-out. It is part of a losing battle to move away from his wrestling persona and transition him back into the ordinary world.
This struggle is brilliantly epitomised by one sequence in which Randy makes his way to work at a supermarket deli counter.
The sound of a cheering wresting crowd builds, but just as ‘The Ram’ goes through the curtain – in this instance through the PVC strips – silence prevails. Reality hits home. His days of performing for huge crowds are over.
There are also notable parallels drawn between Randy and his favourite stripper Cassidy (played by the magnificent Marisa Tomei), who is also questioning her future.
Their ageing bodies have left them on the scrap heap of their superficial professions. Where do they go next? Where indeed.
One way Randy looks to reconnect with the real world is with his estranged daughter (Westworld’s excellent Evan Rachel Wood). It is in these moments that Aronofsky finally shows an intimate close-up of Randy’s face.
Perhaps there is life beyond his ridiculous tights and brutal headlocks.
The Wrestler is an undoubted triumph for Aronofsky. This is no better demonstrated than the rehabilitating effect the film had on Rourke. Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson is a role made for a jaded star who brings his own turbulent history to the character.
Wrestling fan or not, The Wrestler is a film worth grappling with.
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Also read: James recommends: Chronicle (2012)