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. Continue reading