Fox Searchlight and the producers of The Wrestler would likely prefer that this review mention the triumphant return of one Mickey Rourke. He won a Golden Globe for it, was nominated for an Oscar, and as the promotional materials for the film announced in no uncertain terms, to watch The Wrestler is to “witness the resurrection of Mickey Rourke.” Fair enough. It’s quite a performance. And, of course, the (un)likely comeback of Mr. Rourke conveniently mirrors, at least in some respects, the narrative trajectory of the washed-up professional wrestler he portrays on screen.
But forget about Mickey Rourke for a minute, because The Wrestler is less about Mr. Rourke than it is about the resurrection. Underneath the pudding-skin sheen of ’80s nostalgia that tenuously hangs over this picture, The Wrestler is a passion play, which may seem odd, especially from a writer whose only other credit at that point was The Onion Movie. But the wrestler's love interest, and professional undresser, Cassidy, played by Marisa Tomei, makes it perfectly clear while speaking in tongues: “He was pierced for our transgressions…The punishment that brought us peace was upon him,” and so on, and so forth. Though Cassidy is clearly comparing Randy “The Ram” Robinson to Our Lord and Savior, the screenplay tries not to put too fine a point on it. Once Cassidy has recovered from her reverie it becomes clear it’s The Passion of the Christ – like, uh, the movie – she’s referring to, not the version of the story available in motel night stands everywhere. Regarding Mel Gibson’s passion project and biblical blockbuster, she says, “They beat the living fuck out of him for the whole two hours, and he just takes it.” That is, after all, something Randy can really relate to.
Without spoiling anything outright – or, at least without spoiling the heavily implied ending – it’s pretty clear that there's meant to be more than a passing similarity between Randy “The Ram” and the Lamb of God. In the inference the sport of professional wrestling is elevated from ironic amusement, like digging for Englebert Humperdink t-shirts at the Salvation Army, to morality play or tent revival.
In the ring it’s pretty clear we’re dealing with black-hat, white-hat scenarios. Randy’s legendary triumph, and subsequent 20th anniversary rematch, pit him against The Ayatollah – also known as the “Beast of the Middle East,” if you’re not all that into subtlety – letting us know who the bad guy is, especially in 2008. (In 1985, Rocky Balboa went toe-to-toe with Drago, the iron man from behind the iron curtain. The Ayatollah makes a natural villain in our post-9/11 new millennium, while at the same time fulfilling this movie’s need for nostalgia by referencing a very ’80s version of a Middle Eastern baddie.)
In all of Randy’s onscreen bouts, he’s battling more than just another opponent in a different color of spandex tights. Tommy Rotten has a foot-high pink mohawk and a circle-A etched in black on his right shoulder blade (a decent ideological and visual counterpoint to the faded tattoo of Jesus H. Christ Randy sports on his own back). And the Necro Butcher? Well, aside from the fact that he too bears some physical resemblance to Jesus – and not counting his impeccable manners backstage – there’s no ambivalence over which team he’s playing for. Presented in Aaron Sorkin, ending-comes-first, flashback style, the Necro Butcher’s match with Randy is not for the squeamish and serves to dispel the popular notion that wrestling is completely fake. Staple guns, barbed wire, cutlery, and lots of blood make for some uncomfortable viewing. All of it incites the crowd to chant “You sick fuck! You sick fuck!” as if they were bound together in protest against whatever subversive societal ills this guy is meant to stand-in for. Randy’s opponents are clearly symbolic of evils larger than themselves.
Randy’s battles outside the ring are far less symbolic however. Mr. Ramzinski suffers the sort of garden-variety inequities that make him more of an everyman than a Superman. The trailer park, fanny pack, reading glasses, and hearing aid are all nice touches, giving the lie to a washed up, over-the-hill palooka who just happens to have his own action figure and video game. (Nintendo Entertainment System, of course.) But it’s when Randy takes a job at the meat counter to make some extra cash that we can really relate to him. I’m sure the varied incivilities and injustices of the workplace hit uncomfortably close to home for much of the audience. And Todd Barry, creepily spot-on as Randy’s boss Wayne, is likewise all-too-familiar to anyone not self-employed.
Still, these are the little things. More substantially, Randy has a failed relationship with his daughter, which he tries to fix but ends up destroying again in spite of himself. He also has a bum heart from years of doping and general self-abuse. This figures heavily into the latter half of the plot, primarily because it separates “The Ram” from his livelihood – and because of reasons already intimated – but ultimately because it makes him the fallible hero we all know him to be. In spite of the legend, this guy is mortal; no matter what his triumphs may be, they will all end in the final three-count, absolutely.
It’s really in that way, more than any other, that Randy is the film’s sacrificial ram. His mortality is the source of the movie’s greatest emotional impact. Aside from the ’roids and the spandex and the bleach-blonde hair, we can all see in our own personal narratives some resemblance to the triumphs and failures of Randy “The Ram” Robinson. And while Mickey Rourke may have had his resurrection, you and I may not be so lucky.