Over time, one can hope that the awards, healthy praise, and hype can make Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler the classic it deserves. For whatever reason, the years other critical darlings such as Slumdog Millionaire took in over $100 million at the box office, while The Wrestler struggled to $26 million despite the mainstream attention.
Maybe it was the promoted content, billed as something for professional wrestling fans gaining an inside look at a legend fallen on hard times. The Wrestler has so much to give, has an incredibly wide appeal, and is so emotionally moving, not giving it the chance to win you over is a mistake you don’t even know you’d regret until you see it.
Yes, pro wrestling fans will find the most to enjoy here, particularly as the film opens with Mickey Rourke struggling to maintain his meager trailer park home, living in his car, and wrestling small independent shows for minimal pay. After a particularly gruesome brawl, Rourke is told to retire by doctors, and he attempts to lead a normal life.
What follows is an agonizingly realistic story, one that sadly could be a number of major wrestling stars of yesteryear. Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a complex, compelling piece of film character study, someone the audience can get behind, root for, and become emotionally attached to despite his mistakes.
No question, Rourke embodies The Ram, and becomes a fictitious star of the ‘80s. Marisa Tomei is one of the few people he can connect with. An aging stripper named Cassidy following a similar path in life named, she’s also trying to find a way out of an endless cycle that doesn’t allow her to quit. Despite Randy’s earnest attempts to find someone, all reject him, even the local children who idolize him.
Evan Rachel Wood has a small role as Randy’s estranged daughter, his fallback when his relationship with Cassidy doesn’t pan out. Her performance is unfortunately overlooked, creating an intensely powerful scene when Randy doesn’t act as promised, and it’s a shame there isn’t more of her.
Aronofsky directs with an intense style, adding an additional layer of realism. The documentary feel is constantly behind Rourke as he moves from place to place, literally putting the audience in this role. An outstanding opening credit sequence will instantly draw wrestling fans in, with copies of Pro Wrestling Illustrated detailing the extravagant career of The Ram.
The most poignant, memorable, and emotionally draining moment of the film comes before the final match, as Randy addresses a crowd of adoring fans. He claims they’re the only ones who care enough, and they keep him going despite his problems. For a wrestling fan, it’s a stunning shoot promo that could have come from any classic pro wrestler, though probably without the added emotional content. For a non-fan, it’s the culmination of prior events where the character realizes this is what he must do, because it’s the only thing that gains respect. This is perfection.
Shot on 16 mm as opposed to the standard 35 mm, the film stock delivers a gritty, grainy realism that looks great in hi-def. The AVC encode handles the thicker film stock without artifacting or blockiness. Black levels are superb, although black crush tends to be a consistent problem. Sharpness is impressive, leading to excellent levels of detail.
Color and flesh tones carry a realistic tone that still provides a level of saturation that looks great. There is a minor moment of banding in some lights and smoke after a match that passes briefly without intrusion into the sequence.
For a low budget film, The Wrestler is an impressive piece of audio design. Crowded arenas immerse the viewer in the audience, with chants and insults coming from all directions. The strip club is likewise impressive, managing chatter, music, and character dialogue mixed together. Some positional dialogue is also nicely done. The soundtrack, mostly comprised of ‘80s metal, delivers a fair amount of low end work, although nothing spectacular.
An excellent making-of entitled Within the Ring runs 42 minutes, and details all aspects of filming. Everyone talks candidly about the shoot, the budget problems, getting the film made in the first place, and the cast. It’s honest, and almost as engrossing as the film itself.
Wrestler Round Table is an excellent interview with pro wrestling legends Brutus Beefcake, Diamond Dallas Page, Roddy Piper, Lex Luger, and Greg Valentine. It lasts for 25 minutes, and follows a screening the wrestlers attended. They’re open about their careers and the challenges they faced, both in and out of the ring. Trailers and a music video is the last extra on a thin but well done extras set.