Professional wrestling is a work. Much of real life is a work, particularly in our commercially driven society which places so much value on appearance. Not just physical appearance, but creating an impression, a feeling, giving off the correct signals for the occasion. In the world of wrestling this means looking convincing within your character, acting as your adopted persona would, thinking as your alter-ego would, moving as he would. Creating a mood where the suspension of disbelief isn’t a conscious decision, actually becoming the character. Connecting with the audience, making them believe, working them. There is no inherent dishonesty in this, in fact professional wrestling is perhaps one of the most honest forms of entertainment; it does what it says on the tin and transports the viewer into an alternate universe where good battles evil. It is pantomime, drama, comedy and the illusion of sport all in one package. And it chews up and spits out its performers.
The Wrestler is the tale of Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, an aging professional wrestler who at his peak 20 years ago was competing on the big shows, and who we now find attempting to eek out a living on the small time high school gym independent circuit. Life is a struggle for Robinson, he lives for the cheers of the crowd, for performing and working. The Wrestler is a film all about performance, about the nuances of life and how difficult a struggle real life is for those who perform for a living. Randy The Ram lives to perform and despite badly failing physical health he is determined to make one last big show. This is all he lives for, and is all he knows how to do. In this regard he is like all of us. We know roughly where we want to go, but often we have no real idea of how to get there. He has a tangible goal and despite the distraction of his health and his loneliness, he knows exactly how to get there for a last hurrah. Randy is never lonely in front of an audience, as he says the only place he hurts is in the real world. He escapes, as so many of us would like to escape from the daily grind. But his fantasy is as real as it gets, even in the worked, faked world of pro wrestling. His goals are real.
Central to the manner in which The Wrestler works is the character of Cassidy, Robinson’s stripper friend. She, much like a wrestler, uses her body to perform and creates a mood with her performance, albeit coming from a slightly different angle. But crucially she can compartmentalize her life far better. She understands where working ends and living begins, what is real and what is illusion and what is needed to survive. She can make decisions about her life, a skill which Robinson has never fully got a handle on. But in some ways this shows her to be more dishonest than our hero. His entire life is wrestling, it is all he can do and he devotes his life to this pursuit. When he wrestles he gives the audience everything to the full extent of his ability. He is selling an illusion, a fantasy, but with complete immersion and faith; he completely believes in the character and the beauty of what he does. Cassidy does not. She is a split persona – the performer and the woman who has a son and a real life. She dons the hat of a sex performer, but never fully encapsulates the persona. It is a job to her, but by no means an addiction or a calling. It is a means to an end, not the end itself. And thus her life is more coherent, but less pure, less devoted to the art of performance. No better or worse than that of Randy The Ram, but a different side to the coin. And The Wrestler is all about performance and the trials of such. About the highs and the lows, the dualism of those who perform and what this both gives them and ultimately takes away. It is a completely human work, it captures perfectly the uneven balance between the real and the unreal, the projection and the minutae. And then we have Mickey Rourke.
Rourke IS Randy The Ram. A former feted star of Hollywood with all before him, who has struggled manfully against all that real life can throw at one person. This is not his redemption, but his vindication. He can still do it. His portrayal of The Ram is so close to the bone, so steeped in verisimilitude that within the first 5 minutes of his being on screen you are no longer watching a performance . The suspension of disbelief is gone instantly. Major credit also must be given to Aronofski for this. The film looks more like a documentary than a feature film and has a terrific grainy, grimy Werner Herzog quality to it. This is the film that Harmony Korine longs to make, but probably never will. The Wrestler is a perfect freak-show, pro wrestling is the perfect freak-show. And The Ram is very much a freak, an obscurity, a curiosity. He is bigger, stronger and more charismatic than you or I and the world is a far better place for that. Today’s society lampoons the freak, places demands to be ordinary on all of us, and the pressure to conform is prevalent. Randy will never conform, but not because of conscious decision. He is a wrestler, he practices in a field which will never be mainstream, but which often has more resonance to its fans than the mundane real world. It is a complete relationship built on trust and giving the people what they want to see, giving them the bang for their buck. Taking them up and bringing them down, working them, manipulating the collective emotion . But don’t get me started on the promoters.