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Pro Wrestling's Real Mayhem Outside the Ring
by Weldon T. Johnson, Jim Wilson
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "The Wrestler"

One of the kindest things that happens to 2nd-rank actors is maturity, when later-year insights produce new understanding of the craft. Such transformational events enrich us, and the profession, as well. What we witness in "The Wrestler" is Mickey Rourke's entry into that space with his fullest possible absorption into a role of an aging, punched-out but not altogether done wrestler on the independent circuit. The portrait is not only deserving of an elevation in Rourke's status and esteem among his peers, it's an iconic touch point among the memorable character portrayals in the medium.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky ("The Fountain," "Pi") from a screenplay by Robert Siegel ("The Onion Movie"), Randy "the Ram" Robinson, long after his prime, has set such a high mark in the choreographed acrobatics called professional wrestling, that he's still a solid closing act in an evening of pseudo combat in the ring. Still adored by fans and revered by his collegial band of "opponents," he's well past his prime but able enough to do better than just live on his past glory, putting up a pretty good show of muscle and know-how.

As the script concentrates on the details and minutiae of his line of work, it clarifies how a brief dialogue between matched-up wrestlers determine, in pro shorthand and knowledge of each other's style features, how the action will go, including the self-infliction of blood-bearing wounds to stimulate fan satisfaction. These are, above all, showmen.

But life is a little less benignly choreographed for Randy. The pseudo frenzy and exaggerated pain of the wrestling action come down to empty reality as the shouts and roars drift away. Aronofsky introduces us to the man in an extended sequence in which the hand-held camera follows his central character from behind. Somewhat stylized in the manner of the Japanese film master Kurosawa who often employed a low, 3/4 from behind angle on his heroes to express their larger-then-life quality, we get the impression of Randy's massive hulk, his long, blond-bleached hair as he arrives home only to find his trailer door locked by the manager for being behind, again, on his rent.

As he settles down in his SUV, strips away his protective arm bandages and superman personna, we see his battered face. He goes to sleep and is awakened the following morning by neighbor kids. Not angered, he tussles about with them and we begin to pick up on his amiable, benign nature. The Ram isn't an angry man nor, in any way, an arrogant one. The adulation of the crowd is what it is, and the strugles of real life are what they are. The Ram is a guy we can relate to, feel comfortable with. And, he's never, in this film, anything less than an object of fascination.

For all his years of success on the wrestling circuit, he has nothing to show for it, living day to day. He picks up odd jobs to augment his purse income, moving heavy boxes, then as a server behind the ready-food counter at a market.

For relaxation, he visits a nightclub featuring pole dancing and private sex-rub sessions with his favorite stripper Cassidy (real name, Pam) (Marisa Tomei) to whom he expresses the wish for a more personal and private relationship. But, that's not only a line she can't cross, we get the impression that, though she apparently likes her client, it's not one she's particularly attracted to, either. What she does do, however, is give Randy an idea. If he's so lonely, why doesn't he contact his daughter?

Well, because Randy hasn't been much of a father to daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), that's why his sudden reappeance in her life wouldn't exactly be welcomed. But, he gives it a try and, despite her initial rejections, the idea takes hold and his efforts at reconciliation and fatherly make-up actually germinates the seed of dormant family attachments. As part of the thaw process, father and daughter stroll together as they once did on the Jersey boardwalk and feel the draw. We do, as well, taking warmth from the tide of emotional purpose fulfilling our forlorn hero.

As she spills her guts about what his absences in her life has meant to her, he cops to the facts. He accepts every one of Stephanie's accusations and, in the raw candor and honesty that distinguishes him he says, "I deserve to be alone." It proves to be an approach that overwhelms Stephanie's distrust and fear of again feeling the sting of paternal rejection.

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As painfully truthful and touching as Siegel's closely observed character construction is with the uniqueness and familiarity of his subject, the film is not without its flaws, mostly to do with the development of the two women in Randy's difficult life. My guess is that these were created from sources outside the writer's creative vision, elements imposed for commercial purposes, in order to secure financing. Just a guess, but these few questionable decisions don't disrupt the attachment one feels for Rourke's finest hour in film--the flaws take nothing away from that.

(If you've seen the movie or don't think you ever will,
click the SPOILER button, below, for more on these "flaws.").

"The Wrestler" is, for me, first in the tight character study derby this year for Academy consideration, the two other fine contenders being "The Visitor" and "Frozen River." Worth seeing, every one.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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