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‘The Wrestler’ ***** Movie Review 022009
The Work = *****
In the film Robinson has fallen on hard times. He was once a huge star of the wrestling world, as recognizable as someone like Hulk Hogan. Time has not been kind to Robinson and he lives alone in a trailer park, making a living stocking a grocery store and performing around New Jersey at various small venue, wrestling gigs. Aronofsky shows quite well how Robinson’s appearance in the ring does not necessarily help his life in the real world. The venues are so small, they look like they could be in high school gymnasiums. Rourke plays the role to perfection and those who have forgotten his acting abilities will be reminded with ‘The Wrestler’ that he is quite an underrated talent. Others perhaps, would look the part but not have the acting chops or have the acting chops but not look the part. Rourke has both qualities and crafts a sad determined performance of a man trying to regain some of his dignity and joy in one last gasp at a larger wrestling event.
The motions of the plot are familiar and certainly the underdog tale has been told before but it is told so well here that it doesn’t really matter. Not only that but the subject matter is perfect for the story. I remember first reading about Aronofsky’s film when it was still in production. At the time I remember that I was surprised that he would make a film about professional wrestling. Really? Wrestling? Why not boxing or underground fighting. The truth is, I hadn’t really given the subject much thought and it works perfectly in ‘The Wrestler’.
Robinson's career as he knew it is gone and he has no real companions. He plays with neighborhood kids when they want him to yell and reenact wrestling moves. He spends too much time at a strip club that he had been frequenting for some time (probably from his glory days.) He is fond of one of the strippers, Cassidy and after being alone for so long he goes about trying to form a relationship in the last place he should. It is bad enough that he is looking for companions at a strip but he has completely abandoned his daughter Stephanie. Lonely and remorseful, he tries to contact his daughter with all the grace of, well, a professional wrestler I suppose.
Naturally, after not hearing from Robinson in so long, Stephanie is less than enthused to see him show up out of the blue and try to start a relationship. Even when things start to go well for Robinson his career drags him down. He has sacrificed everything for his work and now as the work has faded, he is left with nothing. Rourke makes Robinson a tremendously empathetic fellow and it is hard not to get wrapped up in his tale. For her part, Tormei makes Cassidy a women who is doing something she hates to make a living and get get out. Perhaps, in Robinson, she sees someone who tried to make a lot of money but didn't get out in time. In a way, he is warning that doing something too long, that damages your body and/or your mind will you take down a road that can be very, very hard to come back from.
In the tale of Robinson, 'The Wrestler' goes some distance towards combating a common misconception; that wrestling is fake. Wrestling is not fake and has all too real consequences. The lethality of the attacks, the venom between the wrestlers, the delivery of many of the punches, kicks, throws, and locks, etc. are part of a performance. However, the wrestlers use their bodies as the tools of their trade and the impacts, torques, and strains are indeed real. Not only that but the size and physique of the performers is not natural. The amount of strain (and often chemicals) they put in their bodies is a heart attack waiting to happen.
I suspect that performance wrestling dates back to vaudeville or carnivals. The wrestlers work in unison with signals built into their performance to let each other know what move or set up is coming next. Just running around a ring for 30 minutes would be tiring but when you add in throwing someone else and getting thrown around, (to say nothing of getting hit with chairs, wire and other props,) you get a brutal mix of toil that can stretch one's body to the limit. Robinson has been at this game a long time, probably too long and out on the fringes of the wrestling circuit, there is less money and consequently less concern for safety. The amount of work and abuse the wrestlers go through is bad enough but to do it for next to nothing is downright crushing.
There is no retirement program and when wrestlers fade from the limelight and breakdown there is not a support system in place. Robinson goes to a wrestling fan signing event and he is easily one of the more healthy wrestlers that makes an appearance. Many can’t walk and have difficulty with basic functions. I have little doubt that there is truth in the depictions of the hardships the performers endure (particularly after they have left the limelight.) I would also imagine that because of their profession they are uninsurable.
To be fair, Robinson also seems to have had his fair share of excess when it comes to drugs and alcohol. That only adds to his problems and really are apart of the lifestyle he lead. As fitting as he looks inside the ring, outside of it he looks awkward. Robinson's massive form lumbers around a supermarket like someone who is inhabiting a world, one size too small. He still can do all the moves in the ring but outside, things have gotten increasingly difficult and he uses a hearing aid and wears glasses.
I am sure that Rourke did not do all of the stunts in the film but watching 'The Wrestler' you would never know it. In fact there is more than one sequence where Rourke performs rather complex moves all in one unbroken take. A scene where he does some “blading” (the term for a wrestler making small cuts with razor blade in his forehead so he will bleed during the fight) looked all too real (and may have been real.) He looks the part and is the part and I can't picture anyone playing it better.
'The Wrestler' is a small story of one man's last shot at regaining some of his former glory. Aronofsky, Rourke, and company tell the tale to perfection. I find it hard to fault the film for anything really (maybe that the conclusion is a bit abrupt.) Arnofsky and company seemed to have filmed everything on locations, with often hand held cameras that are never too jerky or overdone. Instead, he and cinematographer Maryse Alberti bring the audience close into the world of 'The Wrestler' making it feel like the events were just captured from real people going about their day to day lives. (It may have helped that Alberti was a cinematographer on several documentaries.)
Supposedly, many of those involved in 'The Wrestler' took either no or little salary to work on the film. Seeing the film now it is easy to see why but that some of them were willing to do so before it was completed is commendable. Even Axl Rose and Bruce Springteen (who wrote a song for the movie and was surprisingly not nominated,) waived fees to have their music in the film. 'The Wrestler' just works and I recommend you check it out as soon as you can. Be aware that it is not a happy film and there is some bloody (but realistic) violence, nudity and plenty of swearing. If you are someone who is bothered by those things be aware but if you can give it a try anyway. 'The Wrestler' is just great and it is highly, I say highly, recommended.
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