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Wednesday, April 22, 2009
  DVD Review: The Wrestler

The Wrestler is a great movie. I’ve written about it a few times in this space before – including naming my second-favourite movie of 2008 – and I’m more than happy to write about it once more now that it’s been released on DVD.

The film follows a washed-up pro wrestler named Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a Hulk Hogan-level star in the 1980s, who 20 years later finds himself wrestling in dingy school gyms before crowds of a few dozen people for meager pay. He eventually has a heart attack, and after doctors warn him never to wrestle again lest he put his life at risk, he reconnects with his estranged daughter on the advice of the stripper he’s trying to get closer to.

The Wrestler was fascinating (to me at least) in part because it shows the reality of the pro wrestling business and what it does to people. (I used to be a fan of wrestling up until about 5-7 years ago before I just sort of lost interest, but it's a crazy, crazy industry.) It also works because Rourke is, in a lot of ways, playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself. His own story is one of the most famous rise-and-fall (and now, resurrection) tales in recent Hollywood history; 20-some years ago he was being compared to Marlon Brando, and the last thing I saw him in before he appeared in before Robert Rodriguez dusted him off for Once Upon A Time in Mexico and Sin City (the latter for a role nobody who’s read the comics can imagine anyone else on the planet playing) was Double Team, the campy Jean-Claude Van Damme flick in which he co-stars with former NBA player Dennis Rodman. (Don’t get me wrong, Double Team is a ridiculous good time, but it’s depressing seeing an actor with Rourke’s talent say things like “Man is strong, but the tiger is stronger” before unleashing a live tiger on a minefield to fight Jean-Claude Van Damme. Incidentally, I recommend that everyone reading this seek out Double Team immediately.)

One of the things I like best about The Wrestler is that, despite it’s fairly well-trodden sports-movie conventions (washed-up former star, stripper with a heart of gold, etc.), Robert Siegel’s script never once veers into cliché territory. I won’t spoil anything, but almost nothing in this movie goes the way it would in a “typical” sports movie, which gives The Wrestler a tangible true-life authenticity.

Adding to that sense of realism is Darren Aronofsky’s direction. Before The Wrestler, Aronofsky had a reputation for flashy visuals and aggressive editing – Requiem for a Dream is an amazing film to look at, and The Fountain brought comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – but here he shoots the film in an almost documentary style. Aside from a few subtle stylistic flourishes, like the faint sound of a cheering crowd as Randy stalks the back corridors of the supermarket where he spends his days supplementing his wrestling income, Aronofsky plays The Wrestler pretty straight, allowing the actors to do most of the storytelling.

And I really can’t say enough about the acting in The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke was nominated for an Oscar for his work as the Ram, and while I can’t say he was robbed – Sean Penn was pretty spectacular in Milk – I suspect this will go down as one of those performances that, years from now, people will marvel didn’t earn him a gold statuette. It's a truly moving performance.

Also fantastic is Marisa Tomei as the aforementioned stripper the Ram falls for. She brings just the right amount of toughness to the role, never going too far to make her into a broad “tough chick” caricature. She’s just a woman who forces herself to live by a set of strict rules (first and foremost, never date customers) in order to get by. Aronofsky does a nice job of paralleling their respective stories, as she’s also realizing her best days in her profession are behind her. Finally, Evan Rachel Wood is brilliant as Randy’s daughter. Wood is a fiercely talented actress with a very bright future ahead of her, and she manages to make her character’s presence felt throughout the entire film despite only being in about three scenes.

The Wrestler is a near-perfect movie. I’ve seen it three times now, and I’m at a loss to find any problems with it. It’s an incredibly well-crafted film (seriously, I can’t get over how little attention Aronofsky got for his work here) filled with amazing performances, and if it doesn’t touch you emotionally, then surely you’re some sort of robot. It’s one of the best films in a long time, and if you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favour.



I’m not sure if the American DVD is any different, but the DVD for The Wrestler released in Canada by Alliance Films has just one extra feature, the music video for Bruce Springsteen’s song written for the film (also called ‘The Wrestler’). It’s a nice enough clip, combining shots of Springsteen singing with scenes from the movie, but it’s the only thing on the DVD. Given that Aronofsky often does audio commentaries and the legitimately interesting process of making the film (the producers staged actual wrestling shows with actual wrestlers and shot sequences with Rourke in between matches), I’m hoping/assuming a more in-depth DVD of The Wrestler is in the offing. More bonus content would have been nice, but whatever. The movie’s great enough to justify a purchase.
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