Update late 2018: Upon another viewing, I find my initial reactions to The Wrestler were unduly influenced by my youth, having understood Aronofsky’s most sedate and least stylistically predatory film but transformed this into a marker of its relative timidity rather than an appreciation of its courageous subtlety. His earlier films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream, so obsessive and brazen, now seem less far-reaching and adventurous and more closed-off, their bracing stylistics belying their own insularity, as though they are showing off simply to prove themselves, playing games in their own hermetic headspace. And not playing games to figure themselves out so much as to sell us on the thought that they have the chops for Aronofsky to experiment again, this time with a bigger budget.
Which he did with The Wrestler’s preceding film, The Fountain, an alienating work to many audiences, but also one which tempers its obsessiveness with real empathy. It manifests its style not to box its characters away from us, to flatten them into types and costumes, chess-pieces in a director’s game-like montage of images, but to embody the danger of the very same, the push-pull of people attempting to find their individuality at the expense of their potential mythic-ness, to surpass totemic sublimation to the ideas and histories around them even as they can become effigies to them. That latter film is sometimes cloyingly over-reaching, but it effuses a fascinatingly broken vibe, a humility that Aronofsky’s earlier films, so self-consciously crisp and clever, never could. While the characters in Aronofsky’s first two films simply are types, proof of and forever in service to Aronofsky’s ability to play around with ideas, Aronofsky’s The Fountain allows its figures to break through the walls he sets up for them, to expose the push-pull of director and subject, to embody not only Aronofsky’s perspective on the world but its aporias. These characters, like The Wrestler’s, are tempted by typographical status, by the lure of transcending individuality and sacrificing their humanity to become myths, but they ultimately transcend these temptations.
The increasingly humbled director runs with that realization in The Wrestler, to my mind his best and least hubristic film, and his warmest, to date. While his later films, from the deliciously paranoid Black Swan to the truly crazed Noah where Aronofsky inflicts Old Testament wrath upon his characters, are undeniably skilled, crafty, compulsive and consuming creatures, tormented and tormenting in equal measure, it increasingly strikes me that The Wrestler is the only one sure enough of its vision to deploy markers of its confusion, to reveal its gaps and unknowns and intimate its incompleteness. To not laminate itself in a showy masquerade of uber-confidence. It’s the only one to explore its characters’ neuroses rather than simply embodying them in the formal texture (as noble a goal as the later is). The only one to turn its characters’ fanatical devotion to a lifestyle into not only the affected pathology of a director obsessed with film-school tricks and quirks but a genuine vision of human tragedy, an empathic awareness of why someone might be so broken-down and bruised by the corrosion of life itself to turn to a fantasy of heroic identity, of totem-status and iconographic fame, in the first place. It’s the only one of his early films where Aronofsky tests his own ability to think-through and understand his characters, rather than secretly lionizing his characters as if wanting to be them, the one which reveals the most about its characters, largely because it is the one least committed to a relatively traditional and purely formal game of expressionistic visualization. Rather than becoming them, it actually tries to think about what that might mean, and what it might mean that he as director can capture their obsessiveness, but not necessarily their heartbreak. At any rate, after the too-immaculate, impressively but vacantly calculated showmanship and disingenuous debauchery of Black Swan, the disarming, more genuinely disorganized naturalism of The Wrestler is a vastly more impressive achievement.
The Wrestler is a deliberately non-intellectual film, but I suspect, for director Darren Aronofsky, it may have been a severely, even savagely intellectual exercise to make a non-intellectual film. The maker of such cryptically sub-Kubrickian works as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, Aronofsky always seems somewhat lost in his own existential milieu, usually to incomplete but entirely fascinating results. His films are, let us say, very icy. Anyone searching for humanity would find a great wide empty hole (very Kubrickian at that). But anyone searching for ambition and cryptic experimentalism? A great concrete slab of pure filmmaking.
The Wrestler could not be further from his prior films, not to mention the two films he has since directed, the vertiginous Powell-esque study in insanity and fractured identity that is Black Swan and the feverishly bonkers gonzo Bible epic Noah. So different, in fact, and so sedate and classically Hollywood is The Wrestler that one desperately researches online to see if Aronofsky’s name on the credits isn’t some sort of joke.
That being said, over the past decade, Aronofsky’s aesthetic has emerged from the depths of his mind. Or, rather, his lack of singular aesthetic has emerged, filtered through his interest in taking on existing, and usually long dead, film genres. The Fountain is his Tarkovsky showpiece that out-Solarises Solaris. Black Swan is his lusty exercise in color and psychosexual manipulation straight out of 1940s Britain. Noah is his sweepingly heated take on the Biblical epic and its melodramatic, Shakespearean origins. All of them, in their own way, are worthwhile messes where failures are intimately linked to successes, films where greater composure and conventional “success” would only have blunted their off-kilter impact.
The Wrestler, meanwhile, is Aronofsky’s old-school male-weepie, feigning quasi-naturalism to arrive at its true destination somewhere near On the Waterfront and Elia Kazan’s romantic parade of the lost and the loners. Certainly, Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s brawny, taciturn demeanor aims close to Marlon Brando’s coulda-been-a-contender Terry Malloy in Waterfront, and you half expect to see Brando emerge off the side of the screen here as an old wrestling promoter or something, had he still been alive of course.
Brando does emerge though, in the sweatiness of Aronofsky’s plain-as-day vision and in the quiet want and stumbled, sluggish gestures of Mickey Rourke’s wonderful performance in the main role of well-past-his-prime wrestler Robinson. We see it whenever Rourke has to interact with the outside world and belabors his words with the full weight of a man who would rather have people stare at him from afar than actually have to interact with them. We see it in the hurting twinkle in his eye every time he stares on at those people in the crowd, himself taking a chair to his opponent’s head. We see his want. We see his flesh. To get reductive, The Wrestler is a one man show, and Rourke, then a past-his-prime actor who undoubtedly felt the better days of the 1980s in the character of Robinson, sells every moment of his return in one of the great comeback performances of modern cinema.
It is a slight disappointment that the film around Rourke doesn’t quite have the meat he brings to the role. It is a thoroughly engaging, heartfelt, mature, and above all humane film, but it is limited in its every-day exploration of Robinson and fellow past-her-prime loner Pam (Marisa Tomei). It feels for both of them, catching the two of them wander around in middle age without much of an idea of where to go. But other than watching them feel, the film doesn’t much know what to do with them either.
Which is what ultimately makes The Wrestler a slice-of-life more than anything else. It is also what forces us to confront some of the washed-out dialogue in Robert Siegel’s shockingly sincere, earnest screenplay, almost to the point where the cloying dialogue becomes as much of a strength as a weakness. Indeed, the dialogue is entirely within the spirit of this sort of Old Hollywood male melodrama about an old washed-up wrestler attempting to cope with middle-age and continue living his dreams in his head. A style which puts it somewhat at odds with the straightforward grunge of the filmmaking, which doesn’t quite see Aronofsky resting on his laurels, but The Wrestler definitely seems to be quieter from a visual standpoint than any of his other films, and much more script-driven. A contrast which makes the film seem a touch 1950s and a touch 1970s, and the two don’t entirely work together. The realism of the filmmaking badly accentuates some of the triteness of the dialogue, a triteness that would have felt more endearing done up in the glamorous, lush style of a Nicholas Ray, for instance.
But then, that is Aronofsky for you, always experimenting and never really reaching his goals. If he did, he would be a lot less fascinating, and what he achieves here is still plenty satisfying: a truly brittle, hurting character study with a monumental central performance that is, quite legitimately, one of the best character-actor pairings of its decade. When all is said and done, it is hard not to wish that Aronofsky had been a little showier with his failures here, as he usually is, but then, the way the film only really comes to life in its wrestling scenes is itself a commentary on Robinson the person; ever the dreamer, he really only lives in the ring, and the film wants to let him come alive in the only place he knows how.