Whatever happened to Darren Aronofsky?
Asking that question doesn’t mean that I dislike The Wrestler (2008), Aronofsky’s latest work. Contrariwise: The Wrestler is a fine film. There’s just not very much specifically Aronofsky about it: it lacks the frenetic cutting and prevalent use of Snorri Cam (a technique in which a camera is strapped to an actor, leading to the impression of the environment rather than the person moving while they walk) that readily identify the director of Π (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000). Maybe it’s the style: the former two films are about chaos and insanity; The Wrestler is about loneliness and decline. Aronofsky’s old style would probably not have served such material well. Or perhaps The Fountain (2006), which I haven’t seen, is a strange hybrid that perfectly explains the man’s stylistic evolution.
Critics did not, in any case, seize upon the direction: they praised instead Mickey Rourke’s performance. Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson (in real life he’s called Robin Ramzinski, but he doesn’t like being called that), an over-the-hill professional wrestler. Randy has no money (in that cliché beloved of all screenwriters, he has to negotiate with his landlord, whom he owes rent) and no real human contact beyond his friends in wrestling: his daughter does not want to see him because he abandoned his family, while his only ‘friend’, Pam, is a stripper who feels uneasy about becoming close to a customer. After a particularly brutal hardcore wrestling match (really, it’s hard to watch), Randy suffers a heart attack, which forces him to re-evaluate his priorities. He struggles to build relationships and keep up his day job at a supermarket while preparing for the twentieth-anniversary rematch against the Ayatollah. (The Ayatollah is actually called Bob. Can you think of a wrestling villain more resolutely ‘80s than one with an Iranian theme? He literally waves the flag of the Islamic Republic about during matches.)
If the above does not sound particularly innovative, well: The Wrestler’s not strong on surprise. Instead, the film finds new meaning in an old story. Hey, am I plagiarising Rotten Tomatoes? Well, that’s because we’ve seen a few films in the past few years that do just that: first The Wrestler, then Crazy Heart (2009). Both films rely on shopworn tropes, but have great central performances to back them up. Mickey Rourke and Jeff Bridges do what we’ve seen before, but, as Roger Ebert said, they make you believe they’re real people and it’s happening to them. Randy “The Ram” likes wrestling: he likes the camaraderie. He likes the sense of a good performance. He likes the admiration: he persuades a neighbour’s son to play an ancient Nintendo game with him that features him as a playable character. The kid assents, visibly more out of pity than anything else. But pity is the one thing Randy does not want: he wants respect. And without giving away too much, by the end of the film he has found the one way to obtain it.
Much of The Wrestler is a one-man show. But the supporting performances are not lacking. Marisa Tomei is excellent as the stripper Pam (stage-name Cassidy). Like Randy, she is a performer, and Aronofsky drives the point home by filming Randy’s entrances into the ring with similar angles he uses for Pam’s walk to the pole. But where Randy finds admiration and self-worth in his performing work, Pam does not enjoy hers. She works hard to keep it separate from her real self. The greatest strength of the character is that she isn’t defined solely by her relationship to the protagonist. She has a life of her own and other priorities – another parallel to her analogue in Crazy Heart. Evan Rachel Wood is unfortunately not as good, suffering from an underwritten character, in a smaller supporting role as Randy’s daughter Stephanie.
The Wrestler is not, perhaps, a masterpiece. But it’s an earnest, deeply touching drama, anchored by a great performance from Mickey Rourke. (See him now in Iron Man 2, clearly having fun – the man knows how to pull off ridiculous costumes.) I regret not seeing it on the big screen upon its original release more than a year ago. Randy “The Ram” still knows how to keep an audience’s attention.