And everyone involved—Rourke, Aronofsky, independent wrestler Necro Butcher, stunt coordinator Douglas Crosby—deserves credit for creating a memorable midmovie bloodbath, a fight involving broken glass, barbed wire, a staple gun, and other implements. Difficult to watch but impossible to forget, the scene shows not only how far Randy has fallen but what lengths he's willing to go to in order to get back in the game. Fights like this do exist, but stars of Randy's magnitude, no matter how faded, don't often venture into matches this extreme.
Aronofsky also achieves an authentic atmosphere in the variety of wrestling venues he showcases. His decision to cast working independent wrestlers and to film at real independent wrestling shows was wise and gives the film a gritty documentary feel. The Wrestler also does a wonderful job depicting the backstage camaraderie among Randy's fellow wrestlers, the eclectic blend of muscle heads, dreamers, athletes, and artists who serve as an unlikely support system for Rourke's character.
I have been thinking a lot about The Wrestler since that New York screening. Feeling a little guilty. You see, I'm not sure if I should feel so good about a movie that doesn't seem to show my world in a flattering light. The wrestling business as a whole has always reminded me of Dorothy Gale's postgame analysis of her time in Oz: "Some of it was horrible, but most of it was beautiful." We don't get to see much of that beautiful stuff in Aronfsky's film (although we do see shades of it in the opening montage of the Ram's glory days). Still, I didn't find The Wrestler to be a downer at all. Sobering at times, but not at all depressing. Despite all the suffering—both physical and emotional—that Rourke's character endures, the movie is sprinkled with moments of genuine warmth and great humor. Indeed, I dare any hardened, grizzled moviegoer not to laugh out loud at Rourke's delicious deli counter dialogue.
I may be in the minority here, but (SPOILER ALERT!) I also felt a certain amount of hope at the movie's end. In the final scene, Randy—who over the course of the film has suffered a heart attack and been told by his doctors to stop wrestling—is back in the ring for a match with an old rival, the Ayatollah. The aging adversaries do their best to overcome the tag team of Father Time and Mother Nature and put on a decent match. By the end of the bout, Randy is clutching his chest and panting for breath. As he leaps from the ropes onto his opponent, the film cuts to black, the credits roll, and we hear Bruce Springsteen's haunting title tune. Still, I couldn't help but feel that things were going to work out for ol' Randy. Then again, I thought Alan Ladd was just really tired at the end of Shane.
Now for the nitpicking. The steroid transaction seemed either a little too convenient (All those substances at once? In the locker room?) or like an anabolic homage to Travis Bickel's purchase of enough weaponry to quell a Third World uprising in Scorsese's Taxi Driver. And I wish there had been some visible difference in Randy's physique after he underwent heart surgery and gave up 'roids—even if just to illustrate the effectiveness and necessity of those substances in "the Ram's" life.
There was one other minor note of disappointment for me: I never did detect any of myself in the movie. Believe me, I tried. Hey, if you are going to be an influence on a movie, it might as well be a great one like The Wrestler. Who knows, maybe I inspired Randy's ratty assortment of faded flannels.And a few people have suggested that I inspired that grisly wrestling scene. But I can claim with a clear conscience that I never used a staple gun on an opponent. Thumbtacks, yes; barbed wire, definitely; but never a staple gun. Maybe one day I will find out I did play some kind of role in the development of one of the great characters in modern movie history. I hope so. Because I kind of feel like I owe Mickey Rourke—you know, for that popcorn trick back in '82.
Update, Jan. 13, 2009: I saw the film again after filing this piece and realized that the locker-room steroid transaction I had criticized as unrealistic actually took place in the locker room of a hardcore weightlifting gym, not the locker room of a wrestling match. I really don't know whether such a deal would be likely or not, and I shouldn't have flagged it as a weak spot in The Wrestler.