By Anthony Reyes.
In 2008, while still in my wrestling watching phase, I asked my brother to buy me a movie that I had heard of called The Wrestler. In my head, I thought I was going to see another Ready to Rumble, or something that would have me high flying off cabinets or practicing wrestling moves on my little sister after watching it. I was a fan of wrestling because I loved watching the primal body to body fighting, but I never thought about what each individual put on the line for my reactions. I knew wrestling was fake, but the real emotion and heart these men and women put into this grind was something I couldn’t even imagine. I truly don’t remember what my first reaction was to the film. Years later after I’ve grown a bigger admiration for film and Darren Aronofsky, I revisited The Wrestler to see what I could have missed the first time around. What I discovered was a story that deeply wounded me, and the wound stings every time I think about loneliness and the human desire to be loved.
At the center of the story, we have Randy “the Ram”, a washed up old man who have a spectacular wrestling career in the 1980s. The highlights of his eccentric glory days are given within the first few minutes of the film, as we hear how popular his character was and how many people loved him. That is one of the few moments throughout The Wrestler where the Ram, played by Mickey Rourke, is praised. He gets a few moments here and there from old fans, the new up and comers who look up to him. But other than that, the Ram spends most of the film getting his ass kicked. In the ring. At his low paying part time job. By his daughter or the stripper Cassidy that he’s grown close to. I remember the second time I watched The Wrestler, years after I first experienced it, I became aware of how much time we spent looking at Randy the Ram from behind. For the first couple of scenes, the camera constantly tracks behind Randy, never giving us a good look of his face. It was as if the filmmakers were communicating to the audience that the man was beneath our own gaze, broken and lost from the person he once was. There is another specific scene where Randy is asking for his boss for more hours, and his boss is standing on a ladder a couple of feet above Randy. When we get the reverse shot, we’re looking directly down to him. We’re looking at this figure that we know back in the day used to rule the world, and he is so small and puny. Darren Aronofsky put a lot of thought to blocking these scenes and understood that our pity and sympathy was going to come from how we looked at Randy, from the camera angles to the ways he lets himself and his body be abused physically and emotionally. When we reach those extreme low points in life as Randy is for the majority of the film, we feel two inches tall. Life knocks us down so far, we have nothing more to offer anyone. But for the Ram, his only saving grace was his body and wrestling. The few people in the crowds that cheered him on as he risked his health and life ironically were the very things that saved it.
As the words of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wrestler” say as the film’s closing credits crawl though the screen, “If you’ve ever seen a one trick pony then you’ve seen me.” Springsteen wrote the song for the film after Rourke asked him to, and it’s impossible to separate the person Springsteen is singing about from Randy the Ram. It’s obvious throughout the film that Randy is not a shockingly smart person. He is not a good father. He does not have any technical skills to have a good paying job. He doesn’t have much to offer to the world. The only thing he has to give is his body and his threshold for pain. At the point of his life where The Wrestler takes place, Randy has accepted that his body is all anybody wants from him, and he’s willing to give it to them for the love they show him. It’s an agreement that wrestlers and all sorts of entertainers make when they decide their vocation in life. Specifically speaking, there is a scene where all the wrestlers are talking and planning out their respective matches. People were arranging how their movements and telling their opponents to kick their ass. They know what the crowd will go crazy for the action and the wrestlers love the idea of giving it to them. Their bodies are pure objects of entertainment, but for these folks, they would not have it any other way. When I was a young wrestling fan, my older cousin who liked to tease me told me that when wrestlers bled, it was because they would cut themselves with a blade that the referee would give them off camera. I scoffed and laughed because I believed in the drama and adrenaline of what I was watching. Plus I couldn’t believe that a person would literally put a blade to their temple for the sake of a wrestling match. But Randy the Ram is stronger than my imagination. He knows that the crowd expects blood, and he gives it to them without a second thought. Every piece of Randy the Ram is for them.
One day when I was young, my father was walking around the house with his shirt off like he often did on a hot day. He’s a welder and has been for almost forty years. In that time, this man has been through a lot of work place accidents that have left scars over his body. I remember asking him about the burns and scars, and he gave me a small anecdote for each wound. “This is when a piece of hot metal fell on my arm.” “This is from the time I stuck my hand with a rusty nail.” The man’s eyes are weak from not properly wearing a mask as he welded. I kept giving him this look of “Didn’t it hurt?”, but he just told me that it is what he has to do, for the family and to make a living because he loves us. So, it blew my mind when in the film, Randy and Cassidy, played by Marisa Tomei, have a conversation about Randy’s scars and the many times he put his body on the line for the crowd. It proved that Randy had authentic, genuine love for the crowd, but also for how they made him feel. They made him valued, loved. After a while, we start to understand why he bled and sweated so much for them. Which is why when his body, or heart, starts failing him, he has nowhere to turn to. The life he’s led for so long, all the dedication he’s has put into putting his body on the line weekend after weekend has turned on him. His heart can’t take the physical abuse anymore, he has to quit. It’s like losing a member of the Ram’s self-proclaimed family.
During one of the intimate scenes between Randy and his estranged daughter Stephanie, played by Evan Rachel Wood, she tells her father, “I guess I was a glutton for punishment.” I imagine that that’s an attribute her and her father share because Randy the Ram put his body through so much. It is all he had. Pain is inevitable, one of the harshest truths of life. But as human beings, many times we get to choose who or what we hurt for. My father used his body and labor for us. Randy the Ram, as a person who was too selfish to put his daughter ahead of himself, used his body for the glory of the crowd. He jumped off the top ropes for them. He went through tables and cut scars in his head for them. But when he could not do it any longer, he had to face life. Randy tried to make things work his daughter. He tried to find a pure, human connection with Cassidy, or Pam. But things never work out for Randy in the real world like they did in the ring. His heart is broken physically and emotionally for the hurt that he’s brought on the people who love him. And in the end, he’s alone. The way he knows that he deserves to be. As much as he wants to be forgiven for his sins even though he hasn’t earned that forgiveness, he knows that the only place he really belongs, and where people care for him, is in the ring. “The only place I get hurt is out there.” The man stuck his thumb in a meat slicer and it did not hurt as much as his daughter telling him that she never wants to see him again. Because he was so close to having it all, but he understood that it was too late.
In the final moments of the film, Randy delivers a heartfelt speech to the crowd. Displayed with his huge scar in the middle of his chest from when he had a heart attack earlier in the film, in front of all his fans and Cassidy who has come to convince to miss the fight and not put his heart at risk, Randy makes a declaration that only his fans will tell him when his time is up in the ring. Cassidy sees it for a second, the love people have for Randy. For a split second, she understands the sacrifice that Randy is making, the abuse he has put his body through. Once Randy starts getting beaten down on and thrown around the ring, she leaves, knowing that she’s lost him to the crowd. Little by little, Randy’s predicted demise comes true. His heart starts to disorient him. At one point, it stops him mid sprint and he drops like a brick onto his knees. He feels it coming but he has accepted that this is the way he wants to go. Before he goes on the top rope, he looks for Cassidy but sees that she has left. The expression on his face is of true defeat, even more than when he was getting his ass kicked a few seconds ago. “The world don’t give a shit about me.”
Finally, his moment has come. He struggles to stand on the top robe. He slowly extends his leg so that he is fully above the ring and the crowd. His body only has a few seconds left. We’re looking at him from a low angle, backlit by a spotlight on the ceiling. He is glorious. This is his element. This is where he belongs. This is where he is on top of the world. Not as when we were looking at him from behind. Not like when his boss was looking down at him, the small-time manager of a supermarket. Here, Randy is the Ram. He pauses. He takes in the crowd, silently thanking them for all those years they love him. With a final breath and dive, the Ram throws himself out of frame. The film ends on a bittersweet note.
Bitter because Randy couldn’t make it work in the real world. Sweet because he got to go out on his own terms, as the Ram.
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