Monday, February 02, 2009

THE WRESTLER: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Runtime: 115 min.
Rating: ****
Genre: Drama

        Dear reader, ever experienced a moment so flat out brilliant, so profoundly moving, so visceral in its impact that you felt the rest of the film just didn’t deserve it? That you wish you could chop everything off from around it so that it stood alone stripped away of all the mediocrity that was trying to pull it down? Stood alone as a great and pure moment of cinema? Cinema as it should be, honest and truthful, so much so that it was poetry of life. Such moments bring out tears in your eyes because you no longer have it in you to applaud. The distance between you as a spectator and the spectacle before you has been melted. When I’m moved at the movies, it usually involves me welling up. I do remember the last time my cheeks were wet – Diwali night 2007, in Tarkovsky’s Solyaris, and for reasons I only slightly comprehend, Kelvin embraced his father and water fell all around them and tears streamed out of my eyes. And I’ll remember the next time around.
        Late last night, the Australian Open semi-final between Nadal and Verdasco found me in the kind of ecstasy sport often manages to conjure up. The sight of two warriors giving it their all, and I was only watching the repeat telecast. And then, I walked right into The Wrestler. The final few moments of the film had me in tears, tears flowing out and then down. I was crying, and I had no idea how to react other than to wrap myself in a bedsheet and clutch my forehead. It is a shattering moment of truth where every artifice cinema appends has been overcome. It is not reality as much as it is a bare poetry on reality. Lit gloriously, crowd chanting, and in that moment I felt I knew everything there was to know about Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Or maybe, I didn’t need to know anything. Mr. Rourke doesn’t seem to be acting here anymore. The skill and the craft has been completely shed. This is the kind of moment where you feel you know the actor as much as you know his character for they are one and the same. It is a towering moment in motion picture history. What we have here is an artist so passionately willing to give it is all for the sake of his art. It is so pure, so forceful, so broken, so full of self-pity, so tender, so raw that it shatters everything in its way. And as I write this I seem to have tears building again, though I have no idea if they intend to applaud Mr. Rourke or his character. I guess I need to take a little break.
        And I return. And how I wish I could chop everything off The Wrestler except for the last 15 minutes or so, and leave it to be applauded. As someone who values each and every tear of his, and believes a film got to really earn every drop of it, I wonder if one or two were shed in disappointment of the film that is in service of such a great performance and such a great moment. It is heartbreaking how nothing much is made out of it except for the some tired old jabs at the lonesome male indulging in self-destruction. The director here is Darren Aronofsky, a passionate young director drenched in the audacity that passionate young directors often possess. The problem is, for all of Mr. Aronofsky’s talent, he is prone more to shoving his ambitions in our face with utter seriousness than to actually be honest and passionate in asking vital questions. His previous films are ambiguous because they do not have much to say. In ways more than one, he is essentially a filmmaker with narrative instincts, and what’s most revealing in his films is the conflict between those instincts and the slew of bold brave auteuristic ambitions he adorns (or conceals) them underneath. I’m succumbing to summarizing a career because I believe that’s important to understand what fails here and why. Mr. Aronofsky, I believe, is much like David Fincher, a filmmaker enormously talented but more attracted to artistic and technical bravado than actually mining something from deep within and putting it on screen. It kind of lends their filmmaking a distance of forced objectivity, from where they seem to be observing their characters. The distance is so large that their attempts to reach out to their characters end up as external decisions on their lives. I’m reminded of Paul Thomas Anderson, the rare and probably the only filmmaker who is able to bridge this gap – the narrative/objective auteur (Kubrick, Hitchcock, Nolan) and the more subjective/personal/autobiographical one (Tarkovsky, Bergman, Scorsese). Most other auteurs seem to fall in between.
        I think now we can answer why. A little bit of plot first.
        Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mr. Rourke) is an aging professional wrestler whose best years are behind him. His abused body lives on a trailer, alone and lonely. His daughter Stephanie (Ms. Wood) hates him for having never been there for her. There’s this strip joint he frequents, and there’s this stripper Cassidy (Ms. Tomei) he hopes to make an honest woman out of. There was a time when he was the darling of chanting crowds, when he was the biggest name in professional wrestling. Not anymore. And one day, after a rather gruesome fight where his body is stapled, he collapses to the ground. He wakes up, and he learns all the chemicals and steroids have weakened his heart, and the choice is between professional wrestling and life. He wisely chooses the latter, and decides to get a job and adopt the everyday life he has never been in touch with.
        Like most guys my age, I had what Mr. Aronofsky calls the eight-month long affair with the sport and guys like The Undertaker and The Ultimate Warrior would fascinate me, though I sure learnt the odd name courtesy my elder brother. There was Chris Jericho, and there was this guy whom my brother really liked, Chris Benoit. And I learn about Mr. Benoit’s fate only now. This article here mentions the staggering number of pro wrestlers who die young. Names? Big Boss Man, Yokozuna, Owen Hart, Hercules to name a few. And names I never heard. It is deeply saddening.
        But it also begs a question of the choices that The Wrestler makes. Convenient ones. I understand Mr. Aronofsky is kinda burnt after the production budget The Fountain was cut from $75 million to $35 million, and the poor response at the box office. I also understand what making a picture with Mr. Rourke means, and how circumspect financers get when his name’s mentioned. No one believed Mr. Rourke could be sympathetic. That they got this picture made for nothing through financing from a French production house is a wonder. That they have turned it into this well-made a picture is minor miracle.
        But, think of these. Randy “The Ram” Robinson was the biggest name, the top dog, the people’s choice. In the world of pro wrestling that means he did beat everybody, and got beaten only for some dramatic change. I wonder why wasn’t Randy a lesser name, like Mr. Benoit and Mr. Hart were. Randy hasn’t met Stephanie in an awfully long time, and he doesn’t have the courage either. Yet, at Cassidy’s behest, he goes and pours his heart out to her. I say again, this is one of the great performances of all time, more so because it not only overcomes but lends a huge amount of respect to some impossible writing. Stephanie forgives. I was moved by how understanding this little girl is. She knows her father, and she is compassionate enough now to accept him for what he is. They decide to go for a dinner, and when Randy forgets, and arrives a couple of hours late, a devastated (?) Stephanie shouts at him and decides to break their relation once and for all. The manager of the deli counter where Randy gets his day job is mean just as most managers are – they’re either mean or they’re good, but never people. Of course, there’s the obligatory scene where an old woman keeps irking Randy to fetch just the exact amount of potato salad, and he ends up making numerous to-and-fro trips to get it right to her satisfaction.
        I could go on, and it would end up being rhetoric. You get the point. These are all sources for easy emotions. The Wrestler is too convenient, too much of a movie, and that is a great shame. In numerous interviews Mr. Aronofsky has mentioned how he pushed Mr. Rourke. Here’s what he says –
The thing with Mickey is that he’s lazy. I think that’s because he’s one of those kids in school that could just coast through without doing any work, getting B+s and driving you crazy. That’s Mickey! He could easily put up his feet in any movie and I think that’s what he often does—he just coasts through—so my major job became to challenge him and dare him to do better and to do his best work. Working with him became about pushing him to go deeper and deeper because he’s got an infinite well of possibility that he can summon up.

Here’s an excerpt from another interview –
Probably my greatest conflict with Mickey on this film was the fact that Mickey Rourke doesn’t wear any sunglasses through the entire film. [Laughs.] Every day he brought a new pair of sunglasses to the set and I was like, “Mickey, no sunglasses today. People are paying money to look into your eyes. They don’t want to look at your face behind mirrored glasses. They want to look into your eyes. That’s the gateway. You gotta let ‘em in.” The thing about Mickey is he’s got all this armor on and he’s a big guy; but, he’s really jelly inside, he’s really soft and tender, and that’s why he’s always wearing sunglasses, is to hide that. He’s afraid of the world. He’s very afraid.

        This here is the source of all my qualms. Mr. Aronofsky does a terrific job in capturing the performances, all of them. The problem is he doesn’t mine himself enough. What such a brave performance deserves is a filmmaker too who is ready to give it his all. Someone who doesn’t play it safe. What the script and the film are concerned with is providing contrasts and poetic flourishes, which feel amateurish in the way they rhyme. Consider for instance Randy’s first time at the deli counter. He covers his head and walks through a lonely, echoing hallway before stopping at the entrance. As anybody would understand, it is supposed to draw a parallel to Randy’s lonely walk upto the fighting stage. But Mr. Aronofsky ruins the moment when he adds the chanting crowd, as if to show Randy’s state of mind. This is a severe flaw. For one, silence here would have been the pure and the correct contrast. The fighting stage has accepted him and cheers him. The real world doesn’t recognize the man behind. Randy, as we all are, is a man hungering for acceptance. The moment should have rather highlighted this predicament. And for two, great moments are when we, as an audience, realize and not when somebody impinges it on us.
        It is worth noting Mr. Aronofsky is working from somebody else’s script, that of Mr. Robert Siegel. This kind of an external hand kinda mirrors Mr. Aronofsky’s style. As I said earlier, he is prone to making broad, sweeping spiritual or poetic statements than to making personal ones. Here he seems to draw a segment connecting Randy the wrestler and Cassidy the stripper. The film seems straining to make them objects of sacrifice at the altar of our male desires – one catering to the lust for violence and one to the lust for sex. The problem is, again, twofold here. One, in a personal story as this, it makes for an uneasy and ultimately artificial way to think. Randy is likened to Jesus Christ, and he is also impinged with staples just to drive home the point. Not a problem at all, because violence is an essential ingredient and the way it is filmed has a heavy emotional bearing on us. The problem arises when the film starts to focus on the stripper, and we’re distracted away from Randy and we’re forced to think of in terms of Cassidy. For a movie as this, that might be a wrong vantage point. The film intends to drive home the fact that these are flesh and blood people behind these constructed bodies that whet and fulfill our animalistic fantasies. That might very well be a correct statement, but what is incorrect is that the filmmaker is portraying such a line of thinking at all. Personal stories ought not to venture outside the one vantage point, and any such theme (of the sex & violence) ought to be left to the audience. Of course, if the filmmaker would choose to explore it that would instead turn into a strength. Not here, and this is the second problem. The Wrestler is content to just hang that little theme in the air as a statement. All we end up with in our kitty is a rather simple minded parallel between what the man feels when his woman panders before other males, and what the woman feels when her man gets hurt by other males. I know some elements of society suck, but such a film might be the wrong place to be passing such comments.
        It is simple. What Mr. Rourke’s performance deserved was not Rocky, but a Raging Bull from a kamikaze Martin Scorsese. Of all the personal stories, that film is the most searing personal masterpiece ever put to screen. Not a single external social comment is made, and instead every moment of the film is spent in understanding Jake La Motta and his predicament. Why does society even have to come into picture? When randy enters the stage, Mr. Aronofsky goes as far as flashing the same blue light that was the cause of so much pain during the orgy sequence in Requiem for a Dream. Even the crowd seems to be chanting something that sounded similar to what was being used to pulverize Sarah Goldfarb. The way I see, The Wrestler is, or is supposed to be, about every man’s great glory. To some it is sport, to some it is science, to some it is art. But every man, deep within himself, has constructed a field in which he believes he rules, or where he intends to rule. That is a safe haven where he intends to retreat, a cocoon if you might call it. Pull a man out of what he has been doing all his life and what you’ve is a little child scared of the new world. Does it really matter to Randy how society views him? He doesn’t desire to be a big shot manager or anything, and it is not the case that he sees his profession as anything disrespectful. It is Mr. Aronofsky and his film that sees him thus, as something that ought to be pitied. Pitied why? Randy needs our understanding. The entire film is drenched in self-pity, when such an emotion only ought to be internalized. Raging Bull is all that comes to mind.
        The Wrestler is not a bad film by any means; rather it is a good film. The tragedy is it is all just a movie. The sincerity, the searing honesty, the give-it-my-all that characterizes every frame of Raging Bull is rather what Mr. Rourke deserved. Not a filmmaker or a film that resorted to narrating a story and found its way into easy emotions, but someone brave enough to show life and left it all to us is what Mr. Rourke deserved. There’s no shame in saying it again, this is one of the great performances of all time. Through what now seems like a great miracle, the film appreciates the monumentality of this performance, and leaves the last few moments to Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Such moments are seldom experienced at the movies. It is a leap into cinema history and the hearts of cinema lovers worldwide. It deserves every accolade. And in the same breath I say, it deserved so much more.

4 comments:

srikanth said...

There is some kind of honesty and humbleness to Rourke's performance. I don't mean the virtue of the written character, but as the actor who plays him. His performance is one that would have come out from the greatest of method actors...

man in the iron mask said...

The writing is actually pretty mediocre. It is the performances here that elevate the matter no end. Marisa Tomei takes it so deep. And Rourke bares it all.

The problem is the film assumes so much before even the film starts rolling, and is actually presenting. That is a shame.

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

Satish, what a crap Ghajini is man! The film does not work on any level. It does not even connect to do that. Either that or watching Hindi Masala movies on DVD s is a very very bad idea. About Asin, I found her very lame too. But she is a God's wonder. And the direction! Good lord!! How should we call it entertaining? But I liked your frank review and went for it.
This crap wasn't even glorious. All I wished was that.

!Teq-uila Del Zapata said...

satish,
This is a very well written review, and i did't read it the very day. you know why? because I was writing a similar article. And if I would have read this one, i couldn't have written it well because couple of time, u block the very thought process by ur writing.
I have written a blog, its not that good, i cannot still write that well on cinema:
http://chambilkethakur.blogspot.com/2009/02/two-of-them.html