If you love the '80s like I do, then you'll agree The Wrestler has one of the best opening credit sequences this year. As the camera pans across newspaper articles, ticket stubs, and programs documenting the career of popular pro wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke), the '80s are in full force. The background is colorful, the credits font is comic book cheesy, and the music is such roaring '80s rock ("Bang Your Head" by Quiet Riot) that you can't help but shake your head with it. But after a "twenty years later" placard, it's all gone. The first real shot, in grainy, handheld digital, shows an old, beat-up looking Randy, slumped down on a locker room bench after a match. It's a pretty startling way to show those twenty years did not serve him well.
Randy is, in many ways, the ultimate has-been. He attends "fan fests" to sign '80s relics, give out old action figures, and take pictures with the few fans that still know his name. He invites kids from his New Jersey trailer park over to play an old NES game of his most famous Madison Square Garden match. He's traded MSG for high school gyms, destroying himself for often thin crowds. But as little as he may have, he still loves it. He clings to every fan that praises him and lives off of the roar of the crowd as they chant for him to do his signature move, the "Ram Slam." On top of all that, he's a genuinely nice guy. He's gracious to all of his fans, compliments the younger wrestlers he works with, and is polite to everyone around him.
But if he seems comfortable enough in his has-been lifestyle, that all ends when he's forced into retirement by a heart attack. Suddenly, this "one trick pony" (per Bruce Springsteen's moving credits song) has to figure out life without wrestling. He tries through two women. The first is Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an aging stripper who wants to make a fresh start. She provides his only real human connection and his best shot at a real life. Usually the part of Cassidy would be a male wish fulfillment role who in real life would have no interest in Randy. But Tomei's terrific performance somehow makes her still feel real. The second is Randy's long-estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who he left back in his wrestling days. But even at its best, the real world can't compare to the allure of the ring.
The movie rests on the character of Randy, and Mickey Rourke does a quietly phenomenal job. As loud and flashy as the sport of wrestling may be, Rourke's performance is so subtle and sympathetic that you can't help but feel for him. In showing Randy's everyday activities, Rourke's performance seems incredibly natural. Rourke makes getting inside the head of someone who risks his life for others' entertainment seem effortless. And he can break your heart with just a few sad smiles. Of course, it helps that a lot of the details of Randy's life describe Rourke's as well. Rourke was also successful in the '80s then disappeared for twenty years, letting drugs and bad behavior ruin his life. Rather than distract, the real life history makes Randy's story hit twice as hard.
The Wrestler marks somewhat of a comeback for director Darren Aronofsky as well, who returns to the scaled-back production style of his first feature, Pi, after the big budget flop, The Fountain. This "student film" style shooting is used a lot in independent film, but here the style really compliments the story. Not only does it allow for the effect of that first post-credits shot, but it fits the working class New Jersey neighborhoods the film shows. Aronofsky also leaves behind the auteury flourishes that characterized previous film Requiem for a Dream for a much more simple, straightforward approach. But if the directing is simple, it is also unyielding. When there's violence, you can count on Aronofsky to cut to a close-up of the wound. He lingers on Randy's face and body, letting the images and acting show what has happened to him.
The script, by Robert Siegel, is filled with great characters and dialogue, but it comes dangerously close to sentimentality. The father-daughter scenes in particular could fall into schmaltz in the hands of a lesser director. Aronofsky's low-key style keeps these scenes feeling real, so that the emotion always rings true. It also helps that the movie shines a light on a world rarely captured in film, that of working class New Jersey. From the supermarkets to the strip malls to the strip clubs, it's an area that, like Randy, has seen better times. New Jersey usually only comes up as a punching bag for New Yorkers, but here it is treated respectfully. And the '80s nostalgia lives on well beyond those opening credits, with '80s music playing in every bar.
The realistic style stands in contrast to the fakery of wrestling. Wrestling is a very different sport than boxing, so the movie constantly reminds you this is not Rocky or Raging Bull. Instead, every match is preceded by the wrestlers discussing step-by-step how the fight will go. This puts a nice spin on the sports genre, as the winner of the match is never in question. Every match has to end with Randy doing a "Ram Slam" for the win. But if the competition is fake, the pain is still very real. In one scene, Randy uses a razor blade to slice his forehead to give the audience more blood. In a particularly brutal battle, a staple gun is used to alarming effect. These scenes are often hard to watch, but it is violence with a purpose. I myself can't understand the appeal of wrestling, but the movie makes it clear Randy does it to make others happy. His pain gets him in the spotlight and lets him do what he does best. And if that pain causes this "one trick pony" to lose some blood, at least he gets to feel the glory.