Considering that there’s so many life-affirming qualities that life has to offer, I’m a sucker for entertainment of the non-uplifting variety.
While I can be entertained by the joyous tales of the wonders of the human spirit — but only if they happen to be entertaining — what I relish most are gut-wrenching stories of hopelessness, tales in which happiness may be sighted, only to be lost permanently just before the credits start rolling.
Which is why even as I would have enjoyed, say, a slapstick comedy about a couple of kohl-eyed Taliban gents accidentally finding themselves in a Las Vegas strip club — and after the initial culture shock actually not minding the experience at all — I can’t help gushing about the film I watched earlier this month and can’t seem to get out of my head: Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.
The film has a strikingly simple story. A professional wrestler who was a major star in the circuit some 20 years ago, now ekes out a living by performing at small-ticket venues. After one such show, a promoter offers him to fight in a 20th anniversary rematch. He smells an opportunity to get back under the spotlight again. During all this while, the wrestler recognises that he has grown older, his body is all the worse for wear and tear, and perhaps it’s time to call it quits.
Which is what he is pretty much forced to do after he suffers a heart attack, just after finishing a bout in the ring.
That is until he realises much sooner than later that the wrestling life is all that he has, and wrestling is what gives him every inch of his identity. He tries his hand at retiring and settling down — trying to win the love of an exotic dancer whom he regularly visits as a customer as well as that of his long-estranged daughter; working at a supermarket fresh fish counter. But these attempts just don’t work out.
Critics have rightly pointed to the superb performance by Mickey Rourke as the wrestler, Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson. Those who’ve seen Rourke play a string of dud ‘bad boy’ characters will know how this role in The Wrestler for this actor was tailor-made for banal disaster. In a performance that could have easily been over-the-top, Rourke underplays with shimmering grace — and how.
What could have been a melodramatic, cliche-ridden film about a has-been’s search for past glory is, thanks to Rourke, a modern-day classical tragedy about an ageing man’s impossible search for the survival of his ebbing identity. Apart from Rourke’s astounding acting — and I will certainly smash my TV set if anyone else gets the Oscar for Best Actor tomorrow morning — director Aronofsky deserves praise for creating a tale of power and grace on film.
The Wrestler isn’t about providing a snapshot of White underclass America (although, in a way, it could have been); it isn’t about the battle against the collapse and decay of the human body (which also it could have been); it isn’t even about how the world has different plans for you even if you’ve made plans (although, it definitely could have been this).What The Wrestler is, is the bone-crushing tale of a man’s proud yet desperate bid to be happy and his utter failure in this doomed enterprise. But what is incredible about Rourke’s display of failed resurrection is that at no point do we feel pity for his character. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do considering that cliches about holding on to one’s past glory abound in the storyline. The woman whose love Randy seeks fights to keep her identity as a club dancer and his identity as a customer intact. But while she succeeds in detaching herself to pursue something more tangible — settling down, companionship — Randy fails. That smells of soppiness. But it strangely isn’t.
The film isn’t nominated for the Best Film Oscar, and it’s right that it isn’t. Bleakness isn’t a quality sought after in Oscar films. But Rourke’s performance is as exhilarating as it is a slap in the face of rumours about limitless human resilience. Watch him.