The Wrestler
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
screenplay by Robert D. Siegel

The new film from Darren Aronofsky with a screenplay from Robert D. Siegel, is a closely-focused portrait of an individual life that has resonant overtones culturally and politically. Reverting back to the style and concerns of Aronofsky's earliest work, it is bleak, ambiguous and unresolved, posing questions without proposing answers.

Aronofsky's first two feature films were the mysterious and highly-stylized Pi and a film-version of Hubert Selby Jr.s Zola-esque tale of failure and despair in America, Requiem for a Dream. He then took a significant detour with a period costume epic The Fountain - which I haven't seen, but which was widely characterized as ambitious and experimental, but overblown and lacking focus.

In returning to a less complicated and more contemporary narrative, Aronofsky turns back thematically as well - to an examination of personal obsession, addiction and delusion that fueled Pi and Requiem, that also resonate with much larger socio-political themes that reflect the experiences of an America that is mostly ignored, swept under the rug - the distorted reflection of the "dream" of Selby's title.

The film depicts the final years of the career of professional wrestler "'Randy the Ram' Robinson" whose given name - which he loathes - is Robin Ramzinsky (Mickey Rourke). Once a "Golden Boy" of the circuit, Randy now has a day job to make ends meet and seeks echoes of past glory in third-rate events held in VFW halls and school gymnasiums, battering his overworked, tired-out body for chump-change.

His descent from stardom to has-been-ery has gone largely unnoticed in Randy's own mind A combination of denial, self-medication, and his weekend excursions into the spotlight - no matter how dimmed - have allowed him to preserve his illusions. But over the course of the film we see the structure of that house of cards he has created wobble ominously in the breezes of reality.

In one sense, the film can be taken as an extended metaphor for America's situation as a nation, our national psycho-social inability to come to terms with the limits of our power, changing circumstances and the passage of time. Like Randy, our nation has spent a lot of time looking backwards to those heady days when our future lay before us, our powers and resources seemed almost unlimited, and we were the envy of the world.

Randy is trapped in a narcissistic self-image from twenty years earlier that he doesn't have a clue how to update. As the biggest fish in the series of increasingly small ponds into which he has gradually descended, he still sees himself as a "Star." In spite of his failing physical powers and the fact that an ever larger portion of his earnings come from menial labor, he still pictures himself as a "professional athlete."

The seedy level of the professional-wrestling circuit to which Randy has fallen, with its role-playing, fakery and emotional manipulation, could be seen as an analogue for the current condition of political consciousness. In one telling scene, featuring a "re-match" of a twenty-year-old rivalry between "The Ram" and a character styled "the Ayatollah" - actually an Afro-American from Dallas who has become a successful used-car dealer - the crowd, chants "USA, USA, USA," with all the fervor of a political rally, and with the same shallow understanding of the complex issues and ramifications of the situation underlying what they are watching.

This intriguing theme of a once mighty wrestler (nation) locked into his (its) own delusional, narcissistic self-image, and unable to adapt to changing circumstances, even when adaptation is necessary for survival, is a cautionary tale on both the personal and the global level.

Sub-plots in which Randy tries to change, to make amends for the errors of the past and to save himself by finding a new identity and new relationships, are emotionally-wrenching and involving on the intimate level of the characters in the story. They also echo the kinds of self-defeating decisions and self-created obstacles the very illusions to which we cling expose us.

Randy's estranged daughter is torn between her instinctive affection for this literally and figuratively "wounded hero" and her realization that his wounds are not only largely self-inflicted, but also inflicted on those who invest in him. His narcissistic inability to focus on anyone other than himself, and his desperate need to affirm his illusion of his "identity" finally create a breach that may be irrreparable.

His emerging relationship with an aging exotic dancer at a bar he frequents, is devastated when he chooses the illusion he knows intimately - the illusion of fame, power and control in the Ring - over the messy, uncertain, frightening prospect of real life. Unable to adapt to changing circumstances, he prefers to sacrifice the possibilities of the future for one more moment of basking in past glory.

The child is father to the man - and nations are composed of people, reflecting many of the same dynamics on a macrocosmic scale with which we as individuals find ourselves struggling. If we look at societies though history, we can see the dynamics of "youth, the prime of life and decline" played out as national identities created by people from Cheops and Julius Ceasar to Queen Victoria, evolved - or failed to evolve - under the crushing pressure of the passage of time and the changing of circumstances.

Aronofsky and screenwriter Siegel have created a fable exploring this archetypal challenge as it manifests in one man's life. Randy can't seem to figure out how to "grow up," how to honor past accomplishment yet leave it behind for the (adventurous) uncertainty of the (possibly even more rewarding) future. But in observing his struggle there is a suggestion of the possibility (both personal and national) of making different decisions, of moving beyond our paralyzing belief in our (manifest) destiny and a slavish commitment to our grandiose image of ourselves.

Siegel's script is one of the strongest aspects of the film. The naturalism of the dialogue, the simplicity of the story, the use of the wrestling "sub-culture" as a signifier for any individual or cultural psychology that becomes largely self-contained and -referential, all work to give the story strong emotional authenticity, on both the literal and allegorical levels. It is an accomplished piece of writing that explores some of the same territory as - and compares very favorably with - Scorcese's classic Raging Bull, in that it is equally powerful in its personal narrative, but also offers - in the implied socio-psychological critique I've hinted at above - something more.

Aronofsky's long-standing concerns with the overlap of individual and collective identities, of insight and delusion, of the dangerous consequences of both "success" and "failure," of the fear of the unfamiliar that "doth make cowards of us all," and of the elusive possibility of alternative outcomes are all present here in deeply-resonant forms, and director and screenwriter have worked very well together to create a unified and compelling vision.

Aronofsky served his project very-well by casting Mickey Rourke - an actor whose ability has been sadly overshadowed by the chaos of his personal and professional life - as Randy. Rourke, a "movie star" in the 1980s and early 90s whose career has - until now - been in bit-parts, voice-over work and B-Films for most of two decades, could certainly understand the forces acting on Randy. He brings a rawness and vulnerability to the part that must come from some deep inner connection with that struggle.

Rourke manages to make something of Randy beyond the intimate story of one-man's choices, but he does so without ever overplaying or seeking to make Randy any more sympathetic or likable than he is. Rourke fearlessly invests himself in this feckless, deluded, self-centered, deeply-flawed character, and makes us feel something for him in spite of "himself." It's a masterful acting job and a reason to see the film in itself, although it is a credit to Aronofsky that the character never "takes over" the film.

Marissa Tomei shows her versatility and her commitment to her craft with another in a long string of complex, interesting and emotionally-affecting characters. In a role that is raw and unglamorous, Tomei fashions a persona that is engaging in spite of the sordidness of circumstances, that flashes with the paradoxical longings and behavior of real-life. She brings a crispness and emotional honesty to Cassidy/Pam that provides a contrast that helps de-sentimentalize Randy.

Evan Rachel Wood, as Randy's long-suffering daughter, provides another strong emotional contrast and another of the subtle suggestions of possible redemption that keep the film from descending completely into Zola/Selby territory. Her work here is beautifully-played to reflect the effect her father has had in her life - mostly through his absence - and the emergence of her own emotional integrity in spite of everything. Unlike her father, she is someone who understands the imperative to face reality - painful as it may be - and adapt to what is found there.

As in all his work, Aronofsky fills in the background with intriguing and evocative minor characters. Here he uses people recruited from the wrestling and body-building sub-cultures to great effect, giving the film a documentary sense of immediacy and authenticity. He doesn't ask a lot of them - mainly that they be themselves and lend their actual personalities to ground the story - and the technique works well.

Aronofsky has returned to his technical roots here with a film that is every bit as gritty and highly-textured as Pi and Requiem. The sets and locations - most, I suspect filmed more or less "as found" - are powerfully evocative. There is nothing smooth or easy or even attractive about this world, and the camera-work reflects that unblinkingly. It is grimy, sordid, cheesy, false, and sad.

Much of the film is shot under-lit and from partially obscured camera angles, giving a visual sense that these characters inhabit a "shadow world" on the one-hand, that contrasts strongly with the almost painfully revealing brightness of the changing rooms, and the seductively (and falsely) transformative isolation of the "spotlight" in the ring. Although there are splashes of color and light - mostly in the wrestling-event scenes - they are often filmed back-lit to create silhouettes and there is a strong black-and-white sensibility.

There is a lot of music in the film - "found music" rather than music composed with the film in mind - and it works very well. I found the Springsteen tune over the closing credits sentimental and obvious, but that was the one real lapse.

This is a very well-made film that can be read on a variety of levels, all of them intriguing and challenging. Rourke's compelling performance, combined with Siegel's fine script and Aronofsky's ability to bring the elements together have created a film that - while difficult to watch at many points and peopled by characters for whom it is painful to feel sympathy - vividly evokes certain aspects of our human condition, that may have more relevance to our own lives on many levels than we are comfortable admitting. But for a movie that is, in some sense, about the necessity of facing reality, that seems altogether appropriate.

That's my take on it. What's yours?