Forget, if you will, the Jesus metaphor brought to bear in so many discussions of The Wrestler that you’ve undoubtedly engaged in or observed across the web and in personal discussions of the picture’s finer merits (which are many). Yes, there’s some weight to the idea that Mickey Rourke’s over-the-hill wrestling champion of old, Randy “Ram” Robinson (real name: Robin Ramzinsky), represents a Christ figure who willingly suffers for the sake of his followers/fans, but slapping that interpretation on this film is utterly reductive to the point of denigrating the true worth of Aronofsky’s critically lauded 2008 masterwork. (Also, isn’t it a bit trite to cry “Jesus” over everything and anything? And how do people reconcile the idea that so many actors from Rourke to Sam Rockwell can at some point in their careers described as a Jesus stand-in? I mean, come on.)
In all seriousness, Randy-as-Jesus does a disservice to a film that primarily concerns itself with the craft of performance and the stories of performers. Because after all, wrestling can be described as a kind of performance (though for all of the fakery at the heart of wrestling, there’s just as much brutal reality– unless you’re convinced that there’s a way to fall on barbed wire such that no injury is done to the victim). And as much as The Wrestler explicitly is about Randy’s struggle to balance his desire to relive his glory days with his need to mend his shattered relationship with his daughter (Evan Rachel-Wood) and building a connection to the beautiful Pam/Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper at a club Randy frequents, it’s also about the livelihood of the wrestlers Randy shares locker rooms with and ultimately why any of them willingly do very real and often irreparable damage to their bodies and minds for the small but enthusiastic crowds that flock to watch their matches.
Nothing so singularly makes The Wrestler a truly great film than the breadth and depth of the performance on display. In a movie that’s about performance, it feels appropriate that the director comes off as a complete non-entity, and while that isn’t to say that Aronofsky’s direction is poor (it certainly isn’t; if the excellent staging and cinematography on display during the film’s wrestling matches aren’t proof enough, then consider the director’s hand in fostering the performances of their cast) there’s no doubt that a conscious decision was made by the filmmaker to remove himself from the picture. In most films, the director has their own sort of presence; we acknowledge that the actors exist in the world the director has built up. Here, the reverse seems to be true. There’s an assured air in Aronofsky’s direction, but he exists in Randy’s world; he’s a guest and an observer, not the all-seeing eye, the power behind the throne that’s secretly running the whole show.
And the world feels so real thanks to the grounded, down-to-earth, organic, and utterly natural performances of every cast member that we could easily suppose that the events of The Wrestler actually occurred, and that Aronofsky simply had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time with a camera at his disposal. Part of that verisimilitude can be credited to Aronofsky’s wise decision to call upon the services of real-life wrestlers to serve in supporting roles; checking over the cast list, the number of names actually involved in the sport is impressive in its size. When the film goes backstage before and after an event, we’re treated to an intimate look at their world and culture and how they prepare for their own brand of performance. And yes, wrestling can certainly be described as performance; the bouts are hashed out and verbally choreographed ahead of time, the outcome is decided in advance, and the participants perform under pseudonyms. The matches are staged– but of course, the risks involved are real.
Perhaps most notable among the bona fide wrestlers here (and I’d argue most compelling case in discussing the film’s theme) is Dylan Keith Summers, who appears only briefly in the film but whose involvement leads to a pivotal moment for Randy. Summers, who wrestles under the stage name Necro Butcher (which frankly belies just how polite and nice he manages to come off in his segment), derives a great deal of notoriety for his willingness to engage in “hardcore” matches that include the use of improvised weapons from barbed wire to thumbtacks and often result in immense and very real bloodshed. Watching Summers and Rourke compete in The Wrestler, we can sit back and allow ourselves to be comfortably unsettled by the display, secure in the knowledge that it’s just a movie. But any security we might feel gets dispelled as soon as the realization sets in that while Rourke is just an actor, Summers actually does this kind of thing for a living– and presumably because he’s passionate about it.
Naturally, we beg to know why, and The Wrestler directs a great deal of its energy into discerning the reasons why men like Summers and Ram put their health at risk night after night for the sake of performing. Maybe predictably, in part it’s for the fans. Maybe less easily understood is that it’s for the wrestlers themselves.
What anyone who missed the original Wrestler train back in 2008 will hop on-board for today is Rourke’s much-hailed performance, which is completely and wholly understandable. Rourke is the muscled, broken-down core of the film, for better or worse– indomitable and yet easily bested by his worst tendencies, inspiring but tragic at the same time. Most of all Rourke makes this man– the stuff of legends, an icon in his field, a role model and hero to fans and fellow wrestlers coming up in the ranks alike– totally human. I’m loathe to make repeat use of words previously typed in this article, but “natural” describes Rourke’s work here too perfectly to not be worth stressing again and again; the concept of the performance melts away moments into the movie and we really believe that we’re watching the life of this man unfold before our eyes, from the broken down opening to the soaring (and yet also heart-breaking) climax. Rourke is aided, considerably, by the talents of his co-star, Marisa Tomei, whose stripper Pam is like a mirror of Rourke in her fashion– she, too, performs, though between the two of them it’s easy to designate who suffers more debasement through their job. Tomei plays Cassidy (her stage name) with an armor comprised of smoldering sensuality; she feels just out of both Ram’s and our reach, but that armor belies a fragility and vulnerability that Tomei sells very, very shrewdly and without making herself into too much of a victim. Like Rourke, she just feels real, and it’s so much easier to care about someone we truly believe is a living, breathing person and not just a character brought to life by an actor. And together, these two actors instill the film with genuine emotion and give it a heart. It’s simply an incredible, moving, and absolutely note-perfect pairing.
All of these descriptors– heart, emotion, natural, genuine, moving– should alone be enough to dissuade critical analysis so singular as to boil down The Wrestler to the biblical level. Aronofsky and his cast have wrought a human drama with veracity flowing freely through its veins, something so anchored in reality that dressing the film in the wrappings of a Christ interpretation seems incongruous with those aforementioned elements. More than that, they’ve presented a paean to the art of performance and what it means to perform. Perhaps there are films that exist that better examine the topic but nonetheless The Wrestler should be proudly counted among their number; this is a film about a man’s search to find relevance in his career and meaning in his life, and this is a film about a sports-entertainment comeback, but it’s also a film about people who put themselves– not just their spirits but also their physical selves– on the line for the thrill of the show.