Using unorthodox strangleholds, filmmakers have long wrestled with the figure of Christ. Few achieve the full body slam as strangely as The Wrestler, an outstanding tag-team combo of professional wrestling, Rocky, and The Passion of the Christ. Robert Bresson presented Christ as a mule in 1966’s Au Hasard Balthasar.
Here, Darren Aronofsky presents the Savior as a Ram – Randy “Ram” Robinson (a superb Mickey Rourke), a gentle-giant pro wrestling star of the 1980s. Left now in poverty somewhere in Pennsylvania, he scratches a meager living from a warehouse job and small weekend wrestling events, set in ill-lit halls before a couple hundred men screaming for blood.
We’re tipped to his holy bearing in his favorite strip club. His lone adult friend, an exotic dancer played by Marisa Tomei, gushes about The Passion of the Christ during a lap dance. She insists the long-haired Ram looks like Jesus. Ram pays the Son of Man the highest tough-guy compliment– “He was one tough dude.” Soon, Ram will suffer disgusting wounds in an all-out, hardcore wrestling match – courtesy shattered glass, barbed wire, and a staple gun – bleeding profusely for the audience’s lust. Sidelined permanently by health and given a small reprieve from fate, Ram is tempted with a normal life.
He finds momentary satisfaction with the mundane – a new job that better fits his personality, a reconciliation with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), a possible normal future with his stripper Mary Magdalene. Yet Ram will instead choose to tempt death in the only manner that stays true to his calling –as a turnbuckle martyr for the sins of American excesses. Much has been made of Aronofsky’s stylistic departure. He replaces the eyeblink editing style of Pi and Requiem for a Dream with long takes and character study.
The down-and-dirty realism seems like a head-snapping change from those films’ hyperrealism, as well as the fanciful sci-fi surrealism of The Fountain. However, the differences are less than meet the eye, as The Wrestler shares thematic consistency. By misusing damaging steroids for temporary glory, Ram, like Requiem’s junkies, takes the drug-fueled, self-annihilating shortcut to the American Dream.
The Wrestler also revisits The Fountain’s dilemma – whether to hold on to life as a medical miracle or to gracefully accept death on your own terms. For Rourke, Ram is faintly autobiographical. A boxer before he was a thespian, few remember that the actor took a break for a brief boxing career in the nineties. A genre unto himself two decades ago, Rourke is a relic of a type of film, the racy erotic thriller, that fundamentally no longer exists. Thus, he knows what it is to be an athletic showman and a vicarious warrior for a snarling crowd. Likewise, he brings pathos to a decent man’s search for dignity in the gap between obsolescence and death.