I sat in the car and shut the engine off. The car cooled quickly and the windows misted. Lost in thought, I was unable to move physically from the emotional impact of having just watched The Wrestler. This was one of the most honest and heartbreaking performances I’ve seen from an actor in a very long time.
As painful as it was to watch the wrestling matches and the extent to which wrestlers self-inflict pain, I wondered how different they are from the rest of us? Don’t we all to some degree abuse ourselves by overwork, eating the wrong things, not sleeping enough, staying in relationships we should end and basically forgoing self-care?
Sure, Randy the “Ram” Robinson is an extreme example, but the behavior is similar. The film and its main character portray themes from Greek tragedy. Like Hamlet, the Ram has a tragic flaw: a lack of self-love, which he exhibits by letting external recognition determine his value. This film could have been about any artist, in any field, who lets his art define both himself and his self-esteem at the expense of loving relationships with family and friends. Thus, the artist, here Randy, is doomed to self-implode. Despite the goodwill of others — his daughter, his girlfriend, his friends, his doctor — Randy fulfills his tragic destiny like a Mack truck with a stuck accelerator, plunging headlong down the highway of destruction. Some of us escape this route by learning self-love early on so we connect to the larger picture, connecting with Nature and with others. For those of us without that connection, Randy’s fate is realistic and tragic in the true sense of the word. Everything about Randy’s life is in a state of decay. But as beaten down and alone as Randy might be, he never loses his fighting spirit or sense of hope. Regardless of what hardship Randy is confronted with, he never retreats and is admirably courageous even if being courageous might not be the smartest decision.
In denial, and mistakenly believing the audience is his family, Randy is blind to true love and intimacy with his girlfriend and his daughter. Love and intimacy take time and — let’s face it — effort, in the sense that relationships are always changing, being negotiated and in flux. It’s far easier to spend hours of solitary time in the gym than to spend time working through intimacy issues.
In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke gave the performance of the year. The film and his acting are so realistic that you feel as if you were in the film and he was you. Rourke’s real life and tumultuous past mirror the Ram’s life so uncannily closely, that it becomes clear no one else was meant to play this role. In many ways The Wrestler can be seen as following in the footsteps of The Misfits, a 1961 film directed by John Huston, in which Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Cliff gave the performance of their careers. Although The Wrestler is a far better film. Alienation and loneliness are thus not new themes, but in today’s economy are felt more profoundly by more people than at the time of The Misfits. I am haunted by this film. Weeks after the screening, I see Rourke’s face at the end of the film. The last shot will leave you speechless.