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In one of the early scenes of The Wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) shows off his scars as Cassidy the stripper (Marisa Tomei) responds with sympathy by whispering, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brings us peace is upon him and by his wounds we are healed.”
“What’s that all about?” says Randy.
“It’s from the Passion of the Christ. For the whole two hours they throw everything at him and he just takes it.”
“Huh. Tough dude.”
If it wasn’t clear before this scene, it’s in that moment made plain that this is a movie about much more than simply the comeback of an aging wrestler. Like director Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, it’s a hard film to watch. It’s about guilt and self-destruction and the often horrible emptiness of being human.
Rourke’s character is a man that’s hard to look at but equally difficult to look away from. He’s scarred and bruised and wrecked by a lifetime of pro wrestling. Drink, drugs, and steroids have all taken their toll and now he’s a failure, living in a trailer, unable to pay the rent, unable to maintain relationships, and looking to salve his loneliness down at the strip club. Yet he’s a legendary wrestler with his own video game and action figures, and he’s humble, likable, and so often noble and gracious that I found myself desperately wanting him to succeed.
It’s this spark of genuine goodness in the character that makes it so difficult to watch when Aronofsky shows us his wounds. He cuts himself in the ring, he lets another wrestler use a staple gun on him and tear him with barbed wire and through it all the “Ram” comes up smiling as if with each cut and each drop of blood he can somehow atone for his disastrous life outside the ring.
In the ring he’s Randy the Ram but outside it he’s reduced to grocery store clerk, Robin Ramzinsky—his real name. His life is a constant struggle to bring those two aspects of himself together or to keep them apart and his belief that wrestling defines him is the central lie of his life even though he can’t see it. When he makes mistakes and things begin to fall apart, his answer is to retreat to the ring to hurt himself and those around him until in the end he believes that the only place he can find salvation is in his own pain and destruction.
It’s heartbreaking to watch him fall, both in the ring and out, but it’s even more painful to see him get back up because he’s the saboteur of his own life and we know it. As he climbs into the ring for the big match at the end of the film I wanted to plead with him to stop, to make him understand that he doesn’t have to do it anymore. He doesn’t realize that no matter how much he bleeds it will never be enough. He doesn’t know that someone else has already been cut and pierced and bled and suffered so that he can live in peace. The Gospel of “The Lamb” is that Randy is an illusion and Robin Ramzinsky never needs to go back into the ring again.
The ultimate tragedy of the film is that Randy the Ram wants his sacrificial rite to be seen as an act of courage when the reality is that he’s running from his life rather than owning it. He’s giving in to the clamor of the crowd because he’s not strong enough to let himself or anyone else try to forgive him.
Aronofsky has crafted a brilliant work in The Wrestler. It’s a moving and authentic look at the things we do to ourselves and to those around us when we can’t reconcile who we are with who we want to be. When the theater lights come up, we are, each one of us, like Jacob, and even Randy the Ram, wrestlers of conscience and identity.
I recommend this film with the greatest praise but I also have to caution you that it is certainly not for everyone. Not only is there a lot of disturbing bloodshed in the ring, but Marsia Tomei’s stripper is portrayed very frankly. There is a lot of nudity and while it’s every bit as important to the film as Rourke’s exploitation in the ring, it is definitely going to be distracting to some viewers.
If you can handle it, don’t miss it. It’s a film for the ages.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.