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THE WRESTLER (2008) ****

Mickey Rourke gives a career defining performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed-up professional wrestler who now (barely) pays the bills by wrestling on the indy circuit.  After a particularly brutal “Extreme” match where his opponent shoots him multiple times with a staple gun, Randy suffers a heart attack and is told to never wrestle again.  He initially sees this as a wake-up call and retires to try to get back in touch with his estranged lesbian daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and start up a promising relationship with an over the hill stripper (Marisa Tomei).  Eventually the world pisses all over Randy and defying doctor's orders, he eagerly jumps back into the ring to do battle with his arch nemesis, the Ayatollah. 


As a lifelong wrestling fan, I always try to catch the independent wrestling association events when they come to town.  There is something about a local venue featuring past their prime wrestlers who still give their all (or all that they can give) for a smaller crowd that appeals to me.  On one hand, you can have an opportunity to hang out and chat with the wrestlers (I ended up in a bar drinking beers and chilling out with Balls Mahoney after one show), on the other, it’s fascinating to see some truly memorable superstars on the waning end of their career.  Since wrestlers don’t have a retirement home and wrestling is the only thing they really know how to do, where else are they going to go?  If you can't make thousands cheer you on in sold out big city arenas, you might as well make a couple hundred cheer for you in a small high school out in bumfuck, right?


And that is essentially what The Wrestler is all about.  Randy “The Ram” is a guy uncomfortable in his own skin who is only at peace when he’s in the ring giving his all for a small but loyal crowd.  Randy isn’t particularly good with people.  He has to beg his landlord to remove the deadbolt from his trailer (only after he coughs up the back rent).  He has to plead with his boss at the grocery store for extra hours.  He can keep kids entertained, but only for so long.  (Why sit in a trailer and play NES with a washed-up wrestler when you have Call of Duty 4 at your house?)  And his relationships with women are spotty to say the least.  But when he’s in the ring, the man truly shines.  He maybe a little older and a little slower, but he gives the people a good show and that’s why they still love him.


Rourke’s performance is pretty much the whole show.  He’s awesome in this flick, better than he’s ever been (and that’s saying something) and if he doesn’t get the Oscar, then the Academy can S my D.  As much as I loved the wrestling aspect in general and appreciated director Darren (Requiem for a Dream) Aronofsky’s respectful handling of the material; without Mickey’s formidable presence, the flick wouldn’t have worked the way it does.  He owns the movie and his tearful speech to the crowd at the very end will give you goosebumps.


Aronofsky’s direction is invisible, which is probably the best compliment you can give a director.  He lets his actors act and you never once feel the presence of the camera.  Whether you’re inside The Ram’s trailer or inside the ring, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie, but accompanying him on his journey.   


What I really dug about this movie is that it’s more or less realistic; not just when it’s dealing with the wrestling side, but concerning the relationships as well.  Although it does veer into Lifetime Channel territory at one point, there is no storybook ending as ALL of the women in Randy's life desert him.  Sure, the stripper chick comes to see him at his final match, but she’s not there to root him on, she’s there to tell him not to wrestle.  And even when Randy ascends to the top rope to execute his signature move, she isn’t there for him.  The crowd, however, is.  And to Randy, that’s all that matters.


The Wrestler flies off the top rope and lands square at Number 8 on The Video Vacuum Top Ten Films of 2008; ranking just above Tropic Thunder and right below Gran Torino.


Speaking of the highest honors in filmmaking, I am setting a deadline of Jan. 31 for me to catch up on all my missed films of ’08 before I start handing out the nominations for The 2nd Annual Video Vacuum Awards.  (AKA:  “The Viddies”.)  Our local theater just got Frost/Nixon so I’m going to try to catch that before I make my final selections.  (I still have to find time to see The Bi-Curious Case of Benjamin’s Butthole too.)  Expect me to announce the nominations on Feb 1st with the award ceremony to follow sometime around when that OTHER award show begins.


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