The Wrestler (2008) features the story of Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), an aging wrestler. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, the film shows a wrestler’s attempts to hang on to the glory days of the 1980’s by wrestling past his prime, even though his health is sputtering and his personal life is on the downturn. A part-time employee of a supermarket, Randy has a manager who makes fun of his attempts to wrestle on the weekends. He meets Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who works at a strip club and – much like Randy – is too old for the work she is doing. He agrees to a 20th anniversary showdown against his most famed nemesis, “The Ayatollah” (Ernest Miller). Unfortunately, the training (which includes a steroid regimen) is too much for him, and Randy has a heart attack. His doctor tells him that it is time to quit, and so he retires and moves to a full-time position at the grocery store. Randy tries to start a romantic relationship with Cassidy, but she rejects him because she is a stripper. She does suggest that Randy repair things with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), and he does. Randy goes to thank Cassidy at the club, but she angrily rejects him again. This makes Randy upset, and he goes to a wrestling match, and then goes out to a bar, where he gets drunk, does cocaine and hooks up with a woman in the restroom at the bar. He sleeps through the whole next day – including his dinner with his daughter. He hurries to her home to apologize, but she tells him that she does not want to see him ever again. Back at the deli, a customer recognizes Randy from his wrestling days. Randy denies it but is so upset that he cuts his thumb on the meat slicer on purpose and then runs wild through the store – just before quitting. He decides to wrestle the Ayatollah anyway. Cassidy comes back and tries to reconcile things with Randy – and reminds him of his dangerous heart condition. Randy tragically explains that his place is in the ring, surrounded by his beloved fans – not in the world. In the match, Randy starts to have chest pains and loses his balance. The Ayatollah notices the problem and tells him to pin him. However, Randy will not settle for anything less than the way he finished all his victims in the past – the “Ram Jam,” which is a diving head butt. Weeping, he gives the crowd one final salute before leaping.
Many professional athletes go through a period of soul-searching when their careers peter out. Since childhood, their identities have been interwoven with the sport or competition at which they have excelled. When they no longer have the ability to excel, some questioning comes into their lives, and they respond in different ways, depending on the degree to which they have identified themselves with their sports. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, for example, retired at age 35, after a couple of concussions, and when he became eligible, he was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He made a relatively seamless transition into commercial real estate, and has become a success in that arena as well. For Randy, though, his entire self-concept and system for self-esteem were wrapped up in his career in the ring. He delved full-bore into the lifestyle of wrestling – including the alcohol, the drugs, and the strippers. As a result, he had nothing outside of wrestling to support his notion of himself. With a “career” in a grocery store to fall back on, and his only interpersonal relationship consisting of a mutual sympathy with a stripper, Randy clearly has nothing outside the ring. His total self-concept is wrapped up in finishing matters with the “Ram Jam.” This means that Randy is deficient when it comes to identity management strategies – to the point that when he wants to restore his relationship with his daughter, Stephanie, he does not have the tools to do so. The conflicts that he faces within himself are too great to allow him to overcome his own self-destructive tendencies, and so he misses the pivotal dinner with Stephanie, because he was sleeping off a coke binge. For Stephanie, this is the last straw; having opened herself back up to the pain of vulnerability to disappointment by her father one last time and having been hurt so quickly, she no longer has the emotional energy to give him. Randy's own identity needs are too jumbled within his own mind. As he cycles between facilitative and debilitative emotions, the fact that so many of the events in his life show him his failure, whether it is his rundown home, his dead-end job in a supermarket, the prospect of having no more glory in life than cutting meat for sandwiches, facing the humiliation of former fans shocked to find the star of their pay-per-view now slicing their pastrami and Swiss cheese. The disappointment and self-loathing take over, and he self-medicates with trips to the strip club, drugs, and drinking – and by avoiding all genuine relationships.
Cassidy finally sees that Randy is headed down a self-destructive path because of his desire to return to the ring, even after the bad news from his doctor. Unfortunately, Randy is stuck in a cycle of nonlistening by this point. He has convinced himself that he is nothing more than the stereotype of himself – the washed up ex-wrestler with no prospects of anything but poverty and humiliation ahead of him, and so nothing that Cassidy has to say has any effect on him. The communication climate between the two of them – let alone between Randy and anyone else in the world, has disintegrated, and so his final leap is suicidal in intent, if not in actuality. The stereotype of the washed-up wrestler who has nothing productive to do in life after he cannot inject himself with enough steroids to get himself into the ring anymore is now more than just an image – it has become a self fulfilling prophecy. What makes this film resonate with additional depth is the fact that the actor who plays Randy – Mickey Rourke – had been widely viewed in Hollywood as washed-up himself, having had his closest approach to a star turn with 9 1/2 Weeks, only to end up on the Hollywood scrap heap until his return to glory with The Wrestler, which would gain him a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. And so the tragic story of Randy becomes a tool of redemption for the actor who played him.
The Wrestler. Dir. Darren Aronofsky. Perf. Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood.
Fox Searchlight, 2009. Film.