‘The Wrestler’ thrills with gritty realism

First things first, let’s dispel any misconceptions or confusion you may have about this movie: The Wrestler is not about the spectacle of fake-tanned, juiced-up men who run around in scantily clad tights and “sit on other dudes’ faces.” I mean, all of that happens, but that is not what it’s about. So all of the opportunistic metaphors you might hear thrown around – let’s get those out of the way. The Wrestler, playing at Images Cinema until March 12, pins down competition with an overpowering tag-team performance from Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei that is sure to slam audiences with a chokehold of emotion.

In a year of high-budget films packed with ludicrous stunts, awe-inspiring explosions, CGI and makeup real enough to make you believe in magic, it is important to know that The Wrestler is not concerned with making itself into a spectacle. Both in and out of the ring, director Darren Arnofsky’s portrait of Randy “The Ram” Robinson is more a study of the human spirit than it is an exercise of self-gratifying storytelling or special effects (no offense to Benjamin Button or Dark Knight).

Rourke’s tour de force performance infuses a rare emotional articulation into his character that complements the brutal realism that Arnofsky (Requiem for a Dream) has become known for. The film, shot with a 16mm handheld, marks a return to Arnofsky’s roots as well as a stylistic divergence from the cinematic norm. The film’s grainy resolution adds a documentary-like feel that creates an almost intrusive sense of intimacy. Moreover, the parallels between the careers of Randy and Rourke – a former amateur boxer and a movie star from the ’90s whose career has since been in decline – blend actor and character so seamlessly that it feels impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

The peak of Randy’s career is catalogued within the first few minutes of the film, as magazine clippings, newspaper headlines and posters depicting highlights and former glory of “The Ram.” But by the time Randy himself is first introduced, it is clear that the once veritable god of professional wrestling is long past his prime. Outside of the ring and underneath his fake tan, makeup, highlighted hair and colorful spandex, the bright lights and smoke that composed Randy “The Ram” Robinson fade away to reveal the man beneath the mask, Robin Ramsinski.

Following an exceptionally gruesome and violent match (two elderly ladies actually walked out of the theater the first time I saw The Wrestler), Randy suffers a heart attack. After having a bypass, the doctors tell him that his physical condition won’t be able to support strenuous physical activity, let alone wrestling. All of the strength and beauty of his former self – the invincibility of “The Ram” – have abandoned him, only to be replaced by the fear of both personal and professional irrelevance.

Outside the ring, Randy exhibits fearless commitment to finding love and redemption. He hopelessly pursues Cassidy (Tomei) – an aging stripper whose difficulty surviving in a profession that also values youth and body image mirrors Randy’s own dilemma – and unsuccessfully tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Ana Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, he remarks to his daughter, “I’m an old broken down piece of meat, and I deserve to be all alone. I just don’t want you to hate me.”

And although you won’t be able to stop from cringing or covering your eyes during the actual wrestling matches, it is clear that the ring is where he belongs. The misfortune and hardship in Randy’s private life make his words before his last match ring true with heartbreaking sincerity: “The only place I get hurt is out there. The world don’t give a s—- about me.” To Randy, his eventual retirement means saying goodbye to his alter-ego and giving up on something that has defined every aspect of his life.

In the real world, where the good guy doesn’t always win and our battles are seldom choreographed or controlled, how does the human spirit weather defeat and disappointment? As The Wrestler shows, by any means necessary. For Randy, wrestling was where he found beauty and happiness in the world – becoming “The Ram,” always the hero and champion in the ring, was the only way he knew to be great. And having found what he loved most in the world, Randy’s resilience and unceasing commitment to the sport in the face of adversity is nothing short of spectacular.