Some people learn from their mistakes. Some people have to have life pound its lessons into them. And some people get pounded and keep doing it anyway.
We are accustomed to saying of this kind of person that he is self-destructive, or even that he has a death drive. But I wonder: do we say this out of an unacknowledged jealousy? As a hedge, to reassure ourselves that though we never reached those heights, our more ordinary lives are superior?
The film “The Wrestler” concerns Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler who attained a level of fame in the ‘80s, has now gone to seed, but stays in the ring because it’s the only thing he knows how to do. A ram can scale heights and jump, which Randy does from the ropes, seemingly oblivious to the resulting hit. But a ram is also a chunk of wood, one that bashes against doors. After enough doors, the ram might not look so good.
Randy has been ridden hard and put away wet. His body is a fascination: pushing fifty. Anachronistic, waist-length, blonde, heavy metal hair. Still impressive, but fading, muscles. Rough skin from too many hours on the tanning bed. A sagging butt, into which The Ram injects one steroid after another. And oh, the scars.
Randy takes a beating every weekend for a little envelope containing a few twenties. When we meet him, he’s behind on the rent, locked out of his trailer, sleeping in his van. He can’t even get inside to retrieve his pain pills.
I have deliberately held back the name of the actor who plays Randy. It is Mickey Rourke, returning to the screen after a long absence. This is the actor of whom Pauline Kael once wrote, “He has an edge and a magnetism, and a sweet, pure smile that surprises you. He seems to be acting to you, and no one else.” All of that, every word, still true. Randy is not just sweet; when we see him with his fellow wresters backstage, or trying to make amends with his estranged daughter, he is positively gentle.
Rourke, like his character, is coming back from decades of what you and I might call disastrous choices. Never at home in the Hollywood scene, he became a professional boxer, leaving his cheekbones shattered; now, reconstructed, the face is one we have trouble even recognizing as his.
But now he has not just the role of a lifetime, but has rendered a performance the likes of which we only get a few times a decade. The last time an actor so embodied a part was Charlize Theron in the film “Monster,” and that was back in 2004 . Does Rourke still act only to you? I can’t easily recall the last time I so identified with a character that my emotions were perfectly in sync with his. Randy’s tears were my tears.
The film proper is very good, but not at the level of the performance. The story involves Randy’s brief attempt to change his life after a horrific and bloody experience in an “alternative” wrestling match. “Alternative” means it includes broken glass, razor wire, and a staple gun. It turns the stomach.
The punishment nearly kills Randy, who has a heart attack following the match. Now barred from the ring by his doctor, Randy begins to break old barriers. This involves actually asking his favorite stripper out on a date. Cassidy, played by Marisa Tomei – usually superb, but even more interesting as she is on the trembling edge of middle age — has always liked the guy, is a lonely single mom, and is looking for a way out herself. But like Randy’s almost analogous job, stripping has rules; and none is more sacred than “don’t date the customers.”
Many people are going to read “The Wrestler” as a tragedy of a man who tries to change his life and falls back on old habits. I think it’s a story of triumph. There’s a reason you have to search to find pictures of Frank Sinatra in his last days, emaciated and gray, still sucking on a cigarette and holding a highball. It’s the same reason that we remember his signature song to be “My Way”.