Thursday, March 27, 2014

ARONOFSKY WEEK - The Wrestler, and A Different Obsession

All of Darren Aronofsky's films deal with a characters' obsession and their addiction, be it drugs, or numerology, or the quest for eternity.  Of all his films, however, Aronofsky's The Wrestler is the outlier, as the obsession here is not external influence, but an internal longing.  Mickey Rourke plays the title role, Randy"The Ram" Robinson, and his addiction is the image of his former self.  Randy is a washed-up former superstar wrestler, working in low-rent wrestling circuits in recreation centers, a shell of his former self hanging on to a dream.  Randy hasn't been kind to his body, a meld of muscular scar tissue and blond hair dye, and his careless youth has caught up with him.  So here he is in rec centers, taking real staples in the face and actual metal chairs across the back.  The Ram will do anything to hold on to the 80s version of himself, no matter how far gone it may actually be at this stage.  His nostalgia is the addiction in The Wrestler, and in many ways is the most tragic and sad of Aronofsky's characters.

The Ram lives in a mobile home, alone, having lost all the fortune and fame of his late 80s wrestling superstardom.  He plays a wrestling video game, one with his likeness, with the neighborhood kids on an original Nintendo.  His van, complete with a Ram action figure stuck to the dash, gets him from match to match as he blasts Motley Crue and The Scorpions.  The wrestling spectators are few and far between, and thirsty for blood from the performers who work out the result of the matches ahead of time back stage.  There are autograph sessions at YMCAs that attract maybe a dozen fans.  The popularity of wrestling has clearly waned since the 80s, and former stars like The Ram are paying for their hedonism with a world that doesn't want them anymore.  His life is a sad state.

Randy struggles to repair a long-broken relationship with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), who mostly rejects his newfound sincerity.  He works to build a personal relationship with Cassidy, a stripper played by Marisa Tomei in a wonderful performance.  Cassidy is a broken person, maybe equally as alone as Randy, and they find each other to an extent the way people who fight the same demons tend to do.  Perhaps that leads Randy into another form of obsession or addiction, the longing and desire to reconnect with humanity in any way possible.  Having burned bridges his entire life, Randy is now trying to repair an old one with his daughter and build a new one to Cassidy, regardless of how much Cassidy may reciprocate.

The Wrestler finds Aronofsky with a shift in styles from his previous, earlier pictures.  Here, his camera is less flashy until the moment calls for embellishments.  His camera follows Randy from behind a majority of the time, and stays omnipresent rather than calling attention to itself to give the film a documentary feel.  The behind the scenes of these bargain basement wrestling matches is fascinating as these former arena-filling monsters discuss who will put who in a choke hold and who might win that night.  But it all depends on the crowd and who they're pulling for that night, because more than they are athletes these broken men are entertainers.

A central match, a brutal and gruesome match where Randy is beaten savagely for the sake of cheers from the masses, puts Randy in the hospital.  He discovers he has a heart condition and if he carries on wrestling he will certainly die.  He tries to get a straight job, but fails for a number of reasons, the least of which is not the addiction to screaming fans.  His addiction to the scene is more powerful than the fear of death.  This is Mickey Rourke's finest work as an actor, both physically and emotionally, perhaps because the idea of a successful career gone awry hits close to home for him.  The Wrestler stands out from Aronofsky's pictures in its simplicity and the lack of cinematic flourish.  This isn't a knock on the film, or Aronofsky's other films because I think there are two better ones in his portfolio.  It is simply an observation that since the obsession with his character went inward, so did his camera.