The most common thing detractors of professional, WWF-style wrestling say is that it’s “fake.” That’s simply not true. While the matches have pre-planned choreography and moves that are staged, for the most part the hits, blows and swipes at the body are all painfully real.
While watching The Wrestler, even though I knew it was only a movie, I never for a second thought that any of the physical violence taking place in the ring was faked. Even seasoned fans of the sport may be taken aback by how brutal the ringside violence is. Yet the physical punishment isn’t what stays with you; it’s the emotional damage the main character carries with him.
Mickey Rourke stars as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a once-popular professional wrestler who now competes in small town, sparsely attended bouts to keep from going completely broke. He reaches out to his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), befriends a stripper (Marisa Tomei) who sees the gentle soul inside the damaged exterior and strives to survive both as a ringside attraction and as a human being. Much has been made of how Rourke, a once-great actor whose career went from bad to embarrassing, is a lot like the character he plays. Make what you will of the inevitable comparisons; truthfully, few actors could come close to pulling off what Rourke does here. Director Darren Aronofsky’s latest is often hard to watch, but is powered by the vulnerable, open-wounded honesty of Rourke’s performance. The story is just a grittier take on Rocky, but Rourke makes you care about Robinson’s journey, while Aronofsky invests pain and passion into a potentially formulaic Hollywood sports drama.
The screenplay takes well-worn movie clichés—the stripper with a heart of gold, the abandoned daughter, the winner-takes-all climax—and gives them tragic twists. Tomei puts a lot of heart and honesty into her role. Wood is a powerhouse and she shares some of the film’s most blistering scenes with Rourke.
I was completely taken by the film’s depiction of pro and ex-wrestlers, the fraternity and brotherhood they share and the horrific abuse they put their bodies through.
Even though the story treads down a familiar path, the film and Rourke’s work surprise you with jolts of the unexpected. From the first time we see Rourke, in an empty classroom, preparing for a bout in a school gym, to the passionate title song by Bruce Springsteen that plays over the closing credits, The Wrestler brings you into the ring, viscerally and emotionally. You’ll never look at Hulk Hogan the same way again. MTW