Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” (2008)

Notable Festivals: Venice (Golden Lion), Toronto

Independent Spirit Award: Best Feature, Best Male Lead, Best Cinematography

Everyone loves a good comeback story.  As long as cinema has been around, it seems, this particular narrative archetype has persisted.  It can happen either in front of or behind the camera, sometimes simultaneously– especially simultaneously, considering the trope’s usefulness as a tool for washed-up actors or tired directors to revive a flagging career.  In 2008, the latest comeback story to enrapture audiences was told by actor Mickey Rourke, who had finally delivered on the early promise of a career many had written off as a series of missteps and squandered opportunities by starring in director Darren Aronofsky’s fourth feature film, THE WRESTLER.  Rourke made himself particularly visible during the film’s promotional campaign, availing himself of countless media interviews and appearing at local screenings in LA (I managed to catch one of these appearances myself, at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica just prior to its official release).  Indeed, the pairing of THE WRESTLER and Rourke was lightning in a bottle– a divine alchemy between actor and subject matter.  What often gets lost in this narrative, however, is Aronofsky’s role in the proceedings, and how THE WRESTLER serves as something of his own comeback story.  

The sudden surge of career momentum that enabled Aronofsky to make 2006’s THE FOUNTAIN slowed just as abruptly in the wake of that film’s disappointing performance.  Having experienced his first major career setback by faltering under the scale of a mid-budget studio film, Aronofsky must have felt a return to the independent sector in which he had made his name was the appropriate move.  Indeed, a total artistic reboot seemed necessary in order to reclaim his forward momentum.  He found this fresh start in Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay about an aging wrestler attempting a comeback– a story he was strongly compelled to realize on-screen despite it not stemming from his own thoughts like all of his previous work.  Partnering with a new producer in the form of Scott Franklin, Aronofsky set up a bare-bones– yet ambitious– production that shot around the New Jersey area for thirty-five days.  The scrappy nature of the shoot didn’t provide Aronofsky with very much in the way of resources, but it did give the director the opportunity to reconnect with his independent roots and re-establish his artistic relevancy, all while making one of the most acclaimed films of his career.


The eponymous wrestler of the film’s title is Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed-up champion fighter far removed from his 1980’s heyday.  He’s got little to show for his prior success– he lives in a trailer park in rural New Jersey, his chest bears the scar of a major heart operation, and he’s estranged from his grown daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).  He’s still wrestling, albeit in the ramshackle regional arenas he used to dominate on his way up to the pros.  Rourke is nothing short of a revelation here, delivering a performance full of heartbreak and regret that reveals untold depths about both the character and the man playing him.  It’s hard to imagine the fact that Nicolas Cage was originally attached to star in the role (1), as it belongs so fully to Rourke– indeed, no other actor would likely have brought the kind of dedication Rourke does, like physically cutting himself to draw blood during a match just like a real wrestler might do. Funnily enough, even Rourke apparently needed some convincing at the beginning.  He reportedly didn’t think very highly of Siegel’s script, but his desire to work with Aronofsky pushed him through his initial wariness.  Aronofsky even let Rourke rewrite all his lines (10)– a seemingly simple gesture that nonetheless shows the director’s growth of artistic confidence in his collaborators, considering how his first iteration of THE FOUNTAIN had collapsed partially because he refused to accommodate Brad Pitt’s request to make changes to the script.  As Randy mounts one last shot at glory in the form of a rematch with his former nemesis The Ayatollah, Rourke repeatedly shows the audience that this was the role he was born to play.  Rourke’s own career had followed a similar trajectory, and all the bad choices he made have led up to this singular moment that requires everything of him.  Clearly, the power from Rourke’s performance lies in its nature as an emotional and artistic catharsis for the actor himself– it is, simply, art imitating life.  Life would imitate art after the fact, with Rourke’s valiant efforts ultimately coming up short.  Despite universal praise from critics that positioned him as a lock for the Best Actor Oscar, Rourke would only make it as far as the nominee pool, losing the golden statue to Sean Penn’s similarly transformative performance in Gus Van Sant’s MILK (2008).  However, this development only matters if one sees the Oscars as the be-all end-all of a film’s artistic worth; the fact remains that Rourke delivers the performance of his lifetime, and the art form of cinema as a whole is made richer by his dedication and sacrifice.

Befitting its framing as an indie character study, THE WRESTLER surrounds Rourke with a limited set of supporting characters, most of them female to better differentiate Randy’s cartoonishly macho fantasy world from reality.  There aren’t too many people that Randy can relate to, but he finds something of a spiritual counterpart in a middle-aged stripper named Cassie.  Played by Marisa Tomei in an Oscar-nominated performance, Cassie also pays the bills by offering up her body to the entertainment of the crowd, her vessel having become more of a liability than an asset as she’s aged.  Like Randy, she too wears a mask when she’s working, hiding her real self away from her audience.  This includes Randy, who spends a great deal of time and energy attempting to make the transition from customer to friend, gradually coaxing the real Cassie out by the end.  Evan Rachel Wood excels as Randy’s estranged daughter, Stephanie, delivering a vindictive, bitter performance as a damaged college student who wants little to do with the father who is only now beginning to show interest in her.  Aronofsky fills out the remainder of THE WRESTLER’s cast with authentic performances by real wrestlers and other New Jersey locals, injecting a visceral realism to the proceedings while further differentiating the everyday from the garish theatricality that Randy deals in.  Finally, character actor Mark Margolis continues his streak of appearing in every one of Aronofsky’s features by making a cameo as Lenny, the cranky landlord of Randy’s RV park.  

The visual aesthetic of THE WRESTLER differs so wildly from Aronofsky’s previous work that it functions as a complete artistic reset, switching out all of his key collaborators (save for returning composer Clint Mansell) in favor of new blood and fresh ideas.  He starts with the cinematography, eschewing a fourth consecutive collaboration with his regular DP, Matthew Libatique, in exchange for the services of Maryse Alberti– a french cinematographer renowned for her cinema-verite  documentaries.  Aronofsky and Alberti shoot THE WRESTLER on gritty Super 16mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, presenting a dreary, autumnal color palette punctuated with bursts of garish color via the wrestlers’ various costumes and the countless fountains of spurting blood.  Indeed, the grainy, organic texture of Super 16mm aptly captures the literal and thematic sheen of blood & sweat, further reinforcing the raw physicality on display.  Far from the sculpted theatricality and stagework of THE FOUNTAIN, THE WRESTLER harnesses the natural light found in its real-world locations, empowering the filmmakers with a nimble mobility.  Indeed, when it comes to Aronofsky’s camerawork, “mobile” is the operating word: inspired by the work of the Dardenne Brothers, his camera evokes sensations of searching or restlessness as it fluidly follows the actors around real locations.  There’s a degree of detached observationalism at play, albeit one that gradually diminishes itself in favor of a quiet empathy and compassion as the story unfolds.  While the cinematography strives for visceral realism, editor Andrew Weisblum adopts a tempered expressionism, utilizing jump cuts as visual ellipsis that compress time across one long, continuous action.  Another memorable moment finds the sounds of an audience cheering in anticipation of a big wrestling match juxtaposed with a tracking shot of Randy making his way from the bowels of a grocery store to the deli counter– to him, it’s just another performance, but the striking mismatch between sound and picture brilliantly underscores just how far Randy has strayed from his element.  While Clint Mansell returns to Aronofsky’s fold, his score (consisting of a spare guitar riff played by none other than iconic guitarist Slash) is downplayed in favor of a suite of needledrops that perfectly embody Randy’s mindset and 80’s heyday.  Classic 80’s hair bands like Quiet Riot and Guns & Roses make appearances on the soundtrack– a development that normally would gobble up the majority of Aronofsky’s budget and leave little left over for the film itself.  It’s a testament to Aronofsky’s credibility, as well as Rourke’s moving performance and THE WRESTLER’s resonant storyline, that many tracks were donated for free– including extremely iconic radio hits like Guns & Roses’ “Sweet Child Of Mine” (2).  Bruce Springsteen even got in on the fun, finding himself so inspired by an early cut of the film that he composed a new original song named for the film that would go on to be incorporated into THE WRESTLER’s end credits and even win a Golden Globe.

Despite its significant departures from Aronofsky’s established aesthetic and prior narratives, THE WRESTLER is undoubtedly preoccupied with the key themes that drive his artistic identity.  The New Jersey setting allows Aronofsky to ground his efforts in a sort of “home base”, harnessing the experiences and observations he’d cultivated during his formative years in the larger New York/NJ area.  The dark side of the human experience, previously explored to such chilling effect in all of his prior features, again finds Aronofsky dissecting another particular aspect thereof– specifically, pain, aging, and the distinct horror of having your body fail you.  Aronofsky goes to great lengths to show the extreme wear and tear Randy has accumulated throughout a lifetime of gruesome physical performance.  A large scar runs down his chest, leftover from a drastic heart bypass surgery.  His joints are creaky, his energy is low, and he needs a chemical cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs in order to function at the most basic of levels.  One of the film’s key generators of suspense is Randy’s battle against his own heart, which threatens to give out entirely if he exerts himself too much.  Naturally, this stands as a major obstacle to Randy’s attempt at a comeback, but what choice does he have when all he really has left to live for is the roar of an approving crowd?  Being of the advanced age that he is, Randy walks that fine line between delusion and conviction– he’s too old, too washed-up to recapture the glory days of his youth, the haters might say.  Every sign points towards retirement, but Randy truly believes he can be become a champion once more.  This aspect of THE WRESTLER’s story serves as a great example of the internal battle between faith and logic that marks Aronofsky’s work– albeit one that flips the script from previous iterations.  As seen in Max in PI or Thomas in THE FOUNTAIN, an Aronofsky protagonist is often a rational, intelligent person challenged by the presence of the unknown or the inexplicable.  Randy The Ram, however, is stuffed to the brim with faith in himself and his abilities, despite the cynical dismissal of the outside world who see him as a broken-down sack of hamburger meat.  While the screenplay did not originate with Aronofsky himself, it’s easy to see why he was drawn to it, and the act of approaching his signature themes from the perspective of someone else’s expression makes for one of the most nuanced and resonant works in his celebrated filmography.

As mentioned before, THE WRESTLER kicked off a wave of resurgent momentum for Aronofsky’s career after the disappointing reception of THE FOUNTAIN.  The film premiered at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, taking home the Golden Lion in the process.  It went on to Toronto, where Fox Searchlight snapped up the distribution rights for $4 million.  Given a limited release in December of 2009 before going wide in January, the film debuted to almost-universally positive reviews and healthy box office driven by a savvy marketing campaign that created a meta-narrative around Rourke’s own comeback story.  Rourke even made a guest appearance on WrestleMania XXV with a fake storyline that paralleled his character in the film (3).  Critics honored Rourke’s courageous performance with the aforementioned Oscar nomination, as well as bonafide wins at the BAFTA’s, the Golden Globes, and the Independent Spirit Awards.  As for Aronofsky, THE WRESTLER is evidence of his graduation to a mature filmmaker with refined (yet still iconoclastic) tastes.  Nearly a decade on from its release, THE WRESTLER is fondly remembered as one of his very best works, re-establishing his pre-eminence in the indie sector while setting the stage for even bigger victories to come.

THE WRESTLER is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.


Produced by: Scott Franklin, Darren Aronofsky

Written by: Robert D. Siegel

Director of Photography: Maryse Alberti

Production Designer: Timothy Grimes

Editor: Andrew Weisblum

Music: Clint Mansell