In 2008, director Darren Aronofsky released only his fourth feature film, The Wrestler, to critical acclaim, earning his lead actor Mickey Rourke an Academy Award nomination and numerous year-end accolades from professional organizations. The film, which tells the story of washed up professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke), was a surprisingly humble project from a filmmaker whose previous three films had each increased in size and scope. While Aronofsky’s films Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000) and The Fountain (2006) had each used a distinct visual style, The Wrestler was shot using hand-held cameras and natural light. This low-budget style allowed Aronofsky’s actors to be the film’s main focus, not dazzling cinematography or rapid speed editing.
The story of a man who has fallen from the heights of celebrity to the depths of obscurity contains many themes that connect with viewers on multiple levels. Randy was once the greatest, most beloved professional wrestler in the world, with fans lining up for hours just to get an autograph. But as his fans grew up and new generations became more interested in video games, his career plummeted, leaving him washed up, broken and wrestling in local gymnasiums for chump change.
The film is incredibly powerful for many reasons. The most obvious is the physically and emotionally raw performance from Rourke, a former Hollywood star who has more than a few things in common with Randy. Not only did he do most of his own stunt work (including having a dollar bill stapled to his forehead), he gave an incredibly vulnerable performance as a man who is desperate to connect with just one person, whether it is a fan, a stripper for whom he has feelings (Marisa Tomei) or his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). Rourke shows us that being a man is rarely about being tough or strong; most of the time it’s about doing right by those closest to you.
Few filmmakers working today are capable of creating the type of cinematic experiences which have made Darren Aronofsky one of the most inventive and interesting directors in modern cinema. Aronofsky consistently dissects high-minded, philosophical concepts through universally recognizable characters and stories which are accessible to every type of moviegoer. The Wrestler is not only a terrific film and a modern classic, it is also an excellent depiction of one man’s desperate attempts to escape overwhelming loneliness.