By Jordan Danner
Like many children of the 1980s and 1990s, I grew up watching the many larger than life characters found in the World Wrestling Federation. The exaggerated violence, the cartoony gimmicks, the “ballet for boys” choreography and other aspects kept me watching every week hoping that the babyface (good guy) would get revenge on the heel (bad guy). The release of The Wrestler happened to come out at a time when the media was shining a light on the dark side of the business. The real-life events of Eddie Guerrero’s death of a heart attack due to a history of drug use and the physical toll of the sport, along with the tragic double murder-suicide of Chris Benoit and his family, attributed to a mix of dementia caused by many years of head injuries and steroid abuse. These issues were all over the news at a time when investigation of steroids in baseball and concussions in football were also being reported.
As the film starts, we are introduced to a photo montage of wrestling magazines, posters and newspaper headlines showing the glory days of Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s career in the 1980s as he feuded with The Ayatollah (wrestler Ernest “The Cat” Miller), reminiscent of Hulk Hogan’s feud with The Iron Sheik. We then flash to the present day and see an aging and broke Randy, dependent on painkillers and steroids to continue wrestling for meager wages as a special attraction at independent shows, while working at a grocery store to make ends meet. This is still not enough to keep him from getting locked out of his trailer for being late on rent.
Despite his hardships, Randy is still a gentle giant that always maintains his sense of humor as he play fights with the children in his trailer park and attempts to court a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who encourages him to reunite with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). After suffering a heart attack in the ring, Randy is urged by a doctor to retire from wrestling, warning him that his next match may be his last. Randy reluctantly decides to give up on wrestling and work full-time at the grocery store until a promoter tempts him with the offer of participating in a big rematch with The Ayatollah to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their match. Randy decides to ignore the doctor’s orders and pleas from Cassidy and sees this as his one chance to get back on top as the one addiction he has more than the drugs. This is the rush he receives from the fans in the ring.
Aside from Hulk Hogan, one may also see a parallel with the life of wrester Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Roberts was also one of the most beloved wrestlers of the 80s, but descended into a life of extra-marital affairs, alcoholism and crack addiction, with similar appearances at fan conventions and occasional matches in high school gymnasiums as his only form of income. Roberts’ own issues, including with his daughter are shown in detail in Barry W. Blaustein’s 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat, for those that would like more of a back story.
Aronofsky chose to pay great attention to detail in this film, with the business itself. The backstage jargon of the industry is kept as a cast of real-life wrestlers’ (including WWE’s Antonio Cesaro and R-Truth) dialog is improvised and discusses the goings-on of the event and how they plan to choreograph their matches beforehand, along with the unfortunate realization of how little the financial turnout of the event was. Wrestlers such as Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper even applauded the story and Rourke’s performance, with Piper talking of crying after seeing the film and saying how their story had finally been told. The biggest surprise of this was the approval of Vince McMahon, chairman of the WWE and one known for shying away from controversy in the past after both a steroid and sexual harassment scandal almost lead to the folding of the company in the early 1990s.
I find this to be an interesting entry and one of my favorites in Aronofsky’s filmography, when compared to other films such as Pi (1998) and The Fountain (2006). Despite this film being about professional wrestling, it succeeds in not exclusively being a film for wrestling fans, much like Martin Scorsese’s The Raging Bull (1980), manages to tell a compelling story, regardless of your interest in boxing. Both films portray a story of what affect a life in the spotlight can have on one’s personal life, an affect which all too often has resulted in tragedy.