The Westler – Aronofsky plays “nice” and makes us feel. (Film Review)
If π, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain are conceptual films, then The Wrestler is an actors film, and as we all now know, one actors film in particular. According to Aronofsky, he has a list of several kinds of films that he wants to make, and The Wrestler, as a pared down actors film, specifically about wrestling has always been on the list. After the concept high and subsequent poor reception of The Fountain, it seemed like the right time to bring the film out. Definitely, The Wrestler is the most stylistically simple film Aronofsky has ever directed, and it was the first he made of someone elses script, even if he, at the very start and Rourke on the day-to-day realism had an influence on it. No matter what you think of Aronofsky’s films, he has always worked well with actors, women particularly, so it made sense to slow everything down and make The Wrestler an actors film. Typical of the emphasis on style, Aronofsky fought against many odds to have Micky Rourke play his lead role, even if it inevitably meant squashing the film into a six million dollar budget when he couldn’t secure funding and missing out on “name” actresses who wouldn’t work with Rourke. Taking on this challenge and turning the films weaknesses to strengths, the story is now the stuff of legend with The Wrestler being praised as Aronofsky’s best film because of the imposed restrains, and Micky Rourke’s great come back film for which he was nominated for an academy award.
The Wrestler is really a story of an actor and a director, though it’s most interesting story must be the difference in a films style when Aronofsky doesn’t write it. π was made for far less (sixty thousand dollars) and yet stylistically, it looks as though it cost a lot more. The Wrestler is filmed as a documentary, the camera often standing behind Rourke (a technique Aronofsky will revive in Black Swan) and strikingly absent for an Aronofsky film, there is no neat tricks or mysticism, something that has it stand alone from all his other films, including his latest, Noah. This lack of interference suits Rourke’s method acting style, something I will boldly state has never worked for Rourke – but then I’m not a huge fan of method acting anyway, There Will Be Blood notwithstanding. I find method acting reduces every story to the level of bio-pic and The Wrestler is the perfect case in point, refusing even something as interesting as a returned gaze on the part of the viewer. Method acting is the lowest level of collaboration with the viewer, and usually relies heavily on a sentimental emotional response, that insists on a new level of passivity in the viewer, even for cinema. I cared about The Ram in The Wrestler (I was forced to), but the film is held entirely in place by the anonymity of the backstage of wrestling, and in the use of traditional boxing porn transposed onto that previously assumed pseudo-sport. It’s manipulative and disrespectful to the artists to call them such and depict their craft as low-brow. While the film may contain accuracy, there is absolutely only one way the viewer is permitted to feel, and I found myself missing the hysterical layers Aronofsky usually tosses at me along side his cheeky grin.
Interestingly, it is his most highly praised film, and considered to be his greatest success, the restraint shown by Aronofsky praised to the point of making a point. It is also a film that makes a trilogy of the first three, bringing them together in a way not obvious from their subject matter, but showing them bleeding off each other, similar to Curaon’s “green” period. However the focus on the mind-body dichotomy, the lengths people will go to abuse and use their body in the pursuit of a dream is more fully realised in The Wrestler, as Aronofsky slows everything down to focus in on the cuts, bruises, breaks and staples in the skin that form part of the “fake” performance of wrestling. While Rourke as The Ram knows all about what he is doing – and there is no doubt the back stage insights are one of the highlights of the film – Aronofsky follows him around like we do, wide-eyed and shocked at what we find.
But unlike any other Aronofsky film, except perhaps Requiem if you were forced to notice it, pathos takes center stage, particularly on the armature wrestling circuit when washed up stars of yesteryear sit maimed as if they were war veterans in an empty hall ready to sign autographs for fans who never come. The Rams final speech is to his fans, the people who he will listen to over doctors or loved ones, and yet they aren’t there for him personally. This is the desolating previously untold story of the wrestling circuit played out on Rourke and The Ram’s body, and it is devastatingly tragic. Delicately, Aronofsky posits Randy The Ram Robinson against a prostitute he hopes to create a relationship with, and beautifully Aronofsky reminds us they are in the same line of work. Marisa Tomei is Pam, a woman who knows very clearly that you can’t date a client, because a client loves you for how they know you and they don’t want to wake up next to a housewife no matter how much they pretend that isn’t the case. Here lies the central tragedy of Randy Robinson, he only partially recognizes his own inauthenticity and yet he completely understands what he is missing. Aronofsky, as he did with Ellen Burstyn, jut rests the camera lovingly on Rourke’s performance as he fully embodies this faded giant of a man. Maryse Alberti cinematography washes the film in oily blacks and the perpetually overcast tone of that 80’s past its use by date fashioning that goes with the metal-esque yellowed hair extensions and the fake tanning salons.
And yet, despite all this feeling, feeling and more feeling, I couldn’t help missing the film that hadn’t been made, the one that included the viewers gaze and the audience’s reaction to Wrestling itself. Wrestlers are choreographed, and yet the audience arrives willing to be duped, taking their part in a performance acting as spectators rather than being passively entertained. Surely this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the sport of Wrestling, and surely it has a great deal to say about our societies relationship with sport? In many ways Aronofsky would have been the perfect director to examine these ideas, underneath the pathos, and desperation, but we are left with only Rourke’s performance and Aronofsky’s good behavior.
If The Fountain was an acceptance of death, then The Wrestler is an acceptance that a life built around the destruction of the human body can only end one way. Like the disgust on the face of Marisa Tomei in her final pole dance as she storms off the stage, the matched resignation of Randy as he accepts the truth of his earlier choices provides each with a kind of nobility that accepts the deaths they signed on for a long time ago. If there is only one thing that we do, let that be done with everything inside us, even if it kills us; and if it does kill us, then so be it. The life lived justified, the death accepted.