Up until 2008, Darren Aronofsky was known for his highly stylized and deeply conceptual films. Perhaps that in itself elevated the harsh reality of his most recent release, The Wrestler. In it, Mickey Rourke plays Robin Ramowski, a professional wrestler who was past his prime even ten years before the events of the movie. Spending an equal amount of time in the ring as he does in the stock room of a local grocery store and at the bar of a strip club, Robin does his best to live as his wrestling persona, Randy The Ram.
The problem is that three decades of getting beat up for small, under-the-table pay has taken its toll on Randy. As demonstrated in the aftermath of a hardcore match with the most striking shot in the entire film, The Ram's body is covered in craters and scars from years of abuse. Combined with his ridiculously expense chemical habits, the only thing holding his body together is 30 years' worth of body grease and tanning spray. It's not long into the movie that he winds up in the hospital with a heart attack and leaves with a nasty bypass scar.
The Wrestler is ultimately a story about old wounds and the too little, too late attempts to heal them. His life put in perspective by pending mortality, Randy tries to reconnect with his college-age daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and pursue a romance with an aging stripper named Pam played by Marisa Tomei. Just like he can't make his torn-up face any prettier, Randy can't salvage his connection to the women in his life with just a friendly chat and a thrift store pea coat.
It's obvious that Aronofsky attempts to draw a parallel between Rourke's wrestler and Tomei's dancer. They're both too old for their game and too set in their ways to do anything else. The only difference is that Pam's job makes her miserable and Randy's is the only thing that makes him happy.
In that sense, The Wrestler posits old pros like Randy as suffering artists more than the cheesy entertainers we assume them to be. While so many of his contemporaries have either moved on to different careers or been permanently crippled by their time in the ring, Randy pops his pills and goes to the gym to stay in good enough shape for just one more match. Whatever glimmers of happiness he achieves when considering retirement require so much just to keep them from fading. Sure, he could be happy working the deli counter at the grocery store, but only if he gets to be his daughter's hero and his favorite stripper's husband. In the ring, by contrast, all he needs is a cheering crowd.
As a big fan of Darren Aronofsky's more dreamy work, especially 2006's The Fountain, I was uncertain how I felt about the uniform drabness of The Wrestler's New Jersey winter. But by the end it all paid off with one beautiful, heartbreaking shot. Sure, it could have ended differently, but why would we want it to?