Monday, May 18, 2009

The Wrestler -- second-chances squandered

The Wrestler Artwork

Director: Darren Aronofsky, 2008.

"When you live hard and play hard and burn the candle at both ends . . . in this life, you can lose everything you love, everything that loves you." This summarizes Randy "The Ram" Robinson's life.

The Wrestler centers on The Ram (Mickey Rourke), an aging and almost washed-up professional wrestler. Living alone in a single-wide trailer, he lives off his reputation from 20 years earlier while getting by working small-time wrestling gigs in VFW halls and as a part-time grocery store loader. He bears the scars on his body but the deeper scars are in his psyche, emotional scars that are too painful to reflect on.

Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) is the female counterpart and foil to The Ram. She is a stripper working in the club Ram frequents, and is his closest friend. But this is not saying much as he has few friends. Like Ram, her "scars" are her tattoos over much of her body. Like Ram she paints a smile on her face as she faces her "fans", but she too bears emotional scars she won't reveal.

The Wrestler VariousBoth Rourke and Tomei bring their A-games to these roles. They descend into their characters and embue them with a sense of realism that makes them totally believable. By surrounding Rourke with actual wrestlers and improvising many of the locker-room scenes, director Aronofosky makes us forget this is a movie. Even Rourke's cutting of his forehead while on the mat is real and true-to-life. Both actors deservedly got Oscar nominations.

Aronofsky's latest film is about as far as you can get from his last. The Fountain was a visually stunning fantasy that interweaved three connected stories from three different eras and left the audience puzzled or satisfied, or maybe both. It was romantic and heroic, with conquistadors and research scientists. The Wrestler, on the other hand, is a gritty character study focusing its hand-held camera on the underbelly of society. Wrestlers and strippers, both actors on a stage that middle-class America avoids. This is not romantic or beautiful; it is tough-as-nails and it's hard to watch.

The Wrestler VariousThe Ram is still playing the game although his best years are behind him. Aronofsky shows wrestling for the game it is. When the fighters mingle in the dressing room/locker room before the event, they go over the moves and falls they are going to do. It is all an act, a sham for the benefit of the audience. Likewise, the come-ons that Cassidy and the other strippers make to their audience is all an act. Cassidy, like Ram, is over-the-hill, a 40-something mother whose looks evaporate in the bright light of daytime.

When Ram collapses after one match he is rushed to the hospital to undergo emergency surgery. His life is saved and he is given a second-chance. But what will he do with it? As he recounts this to Cassidy, she counsels him to make amends with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood, Across the Universe). Ram attempts to hold down a steady job as a deli-counter worker, but he has the patience of a gnat and a desire to be back in the spotlight.

As The Wrestler progresses, the Ram gets his second chances at fatherhood, wrestling and love. Reconnecting with Stephanie, Ram confesses his failings to her in a poignant scene: "You're my girl. You're my little girl. And now, I'm an old broken down piece of meat . . . and I'm alone. And I deserve to be all alone. I just don't want you to hate me." He does not want to be hated. But forgiveness is not easy for those who have been deeply hurt. Ram's deep wounds were self-inflicted. Stephanie's were caused by him. Forgiveness may be a deeply biblical concept but it is tremendously hard in practice. Some second chances cannot be easily sustained. It takes a renewed heart, one that has experienced the personal forgiveness offered by Jesus, to forgive another.

When ordinary life becomes too difficult Ram returns to the only real life he has known -- professional wrestling. The rematch with his nemesis from the 80s offers him another second chance. But he is not the same man he was. We often want to go back to our youth or a period of personal success. But time marches ever onward. We cannot stop it, let alone turn it backwards. We can only live in the present, anticipating the future, learning from the past. With each day's birth we change, ever so slightly, so we are not the same people we were yesterday. We grow. We mature. We slowly die. Only Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8).

When Cassidy realizes the depth and reality of Ram's feelings for her, she gives him a second chance at love. But he has a choice to make. He cannot live the life of a husband and a wrestler. These lives do not easily intermix. He tells the audience that is roaring his name, "You people here . . you people here. You're my family." Ram lives for the applause. Affirmation by the fans is his drug of choice. He will do anything, sacrifice everything for this fix, this high. He cannot see that they are not his real family. Those who love him, or once did, are sacrificed on the altar of the wrestler's mat.

How are we treating those who love us? Are we relishing that love and reciprocating with a love of our own? Or have we focused on our own success, our own business careers, at the expense of our families, who are left on the sidelines forgotten and alone? The Wrestler reminds us that ordinary life may seem dull but often carries its own rewards in family love.

Second chances do come in life, as they did for Randy The Ram Robinson. But how we respond to them will decide if they make a difference. We cannot count on third-chances.

The tag-line for The Wrestler was "Love. Pain. Glory." It causes us to stop and ponder: what do we really want out of life? For The Ram, it was glory and love, at the cost of huge personal pain. What about us? What will we pay? Where will we look for love? Will we look to Jesus?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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