January 26, 2009

Blood, Sweat and Tears: An Emotional Trifecta

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I toyed around with the idea of calling this article “Top Ten Reasons Why The Wrestler is Awesome and Slumdog Millionaire Sucks,” but after a threatened lawsuit from David Letterman and several friends telling me that I’m a heartless scrooge who doesn’t believe in miracles, I thought better of it. But that doesn’t change the fact that The Wrestler, a film by acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain), is a truly great film and easily the most snubbed movie of this year’s Oscar nominees. 2008 was a great year for movies, bringing us such memorable films as The Dark Knight, Milk, WALL-E, Forrest Gump II: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the soon-to-be timeless cinematic classic, Twilight. And with the possible exception of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, NY (speaking of Oscar snubs), The Wrestler is better than all of them. Then how do you explain why Slumdog is getting showered with accolades while The Wrestler is consigned to being the butt of Mickey Rourke cocaine jokes (not cool, Seth Rogen)? Answer: it is written.
The Wrestler is an incredibly poignant look into the troubled life of Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a washed-up professional wrestler struggling with the physical and emotional consequences of a life-long devotion to wrestling. The film portrays the world of wrestling in all its glory and its gloom, catching the emotional highs and lows from the wrestlers’ locker room camaraderie and rock star-like entrances to sorry autograph sessions and gruesome post-match medical treatment. The beginning of the film actually has a documentary feel to it, with the camera routinely following The Ram as if journalistically documenting his every move. This cinematographic style, often hand-held and perfectly inexact, helps to create a degree of realism that is simply not found in most movies.
But what sets the film apart is how quickly its humor turns to pain. Aronofsky presents light-hearted scenes, like an amusing transaction of $1,000 worth of steroids, immediately before scenes much darker in tone, like the image of The Ram injecting himself with the drugs. This type of juxtaposition leaves the audience at the mercy of the story’s emotional turbulence, for we are never quite sure when it’s appropriate to laugh since something very heavy might come next. Indeed, just as we are about to warm up to the charm of backstage interactions, Aronofsky attacks us with one of the more horrific and truly depraved scenes imaginable: a hardcore wrestling match escalates to subhuman proportions until finally the bloodbath ends, but not without terrible repercussions for The Ram. If nothing else, the constant balance between comedy and tragedy is an indication of a superb screenplay (by Robert Siegel) and a director at the top of his game with the ability to make his audience feel something during each moment of the film.
As if Aronofsky’s filmmaking wasn’t brilliant enough to carry the film, we are treated to probably one of the more remarkable screen performances in recent years. Rourke’s portrayal of a lonely “broken down piece of meat” is inspiring, as he gives an incredibly human face to an often inhuman wrestling culture. Despite his imposing build, he is instantly an endearing character, as we see him cheerful enough to play with local kids after his inability to pay rent forces him to sleep in his van. We can’t help but sympathize with him after glimpsing his battered lifestyle and the numerous daily sacrifices he makes to continue wrestling — sacrifices that Rourke captures brilliantly and with an incredible ability to convey the raw agony of it all. Although he spends much of the movie alone, The Ram turns to the company of two women, a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and The Ram’s estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Both actresses deliver solid performances in their respective roles, and each becomes the basis of very important storylines that ultimately lead to The Ram’s decision to attempt a comeback. Throughout the film, his character experiences a broad spectrum of human emotion, and Rourke is equally phenomenal in moments of strength and weakness, happiness and rage. He delivers a truly unforgettable performance, one which already earned him a Golden Globe, and which should certainly earn him the Oscar nod.
By the end of the film, The Ram returns to the ring for one final match, delivering an emotional speech to the crowd about paying the price and losing everything. “The only place I get hurt is out there!” he announces to an arena full of fans, who he claimes are his true family. And as if the movie could not get any better, it ends with the title song sung by Bruce Springsteen, which was described to me by a self-proclaimed Bruce guru as “one of his best songs in years.” I have rarely walked out of a theater more satisfied with a movie than I did after seeing The Wrestler. It’s as close to a must-see as anything currently playing, and, if you ask me, is not only the best picture of the year but of the last several years. Yes, that’s my final answer.