What one notices first about the film is the consciousness which is borne from the stripped-down cinematic style---the grainy, hued, hand-held, and gritty look that Maryse Alberti (one of the first females ever to be nominated for a Best Cinematography Academy Award) gives to the story to create that raw human emotion which breathes life into this motion picture.
In the opening scenes, the audience is not given the privilege of seeing the Wrestler’s (Randy “The Ram” Robinson [Mickey Rourke]) face. Instead, in an obvious documentary fashion, the audience follows “The Ram” through doors to the dressing room, out to the ring, into his van, and to his trailer, etc. The audience’s curiosity builds up: Just how old and used up does this guy look?
The creators behind this movie, Darren Aronofsky (the director) and Robert Siegel (the screenwriter), take a risk in the first section. For the most part, the audience is not allowed into the world which “The Ram” inhabits until after one of the most brutal scenes ever filmed on camera takes place---a savage scrap between the Wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), and Necro the Butcher.
By now, it is known that “The Ram” struggles to pay rent, sometimes lives in his van, continues to wrestle in community centers because it is what he knows how to do for pay, knows someone who can give him work for a little pay but not a steady job, has a past with a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) at a strip club which he regularly goes to, and is alone in his existence.
Knowing that the wrestlers discuss backstage before the match what they will do to each other to create the best show, it’s a bit nerving to hear the word “staples” when Necro responds is asked by “The Ram” about plans for the match. Before it can fully sink in that the upcoming match is a match far different from the classic wrestling matches of the 80s which “The Ram” owes his notoriety to, a bloody, gut-wrenching match involving glass, steel, staples, barbed wire, and more takes place.
The masochism is piled on as the editing sequence shifts from the ring to “The Ram” being cleaned up by a medical team afterward and back to the ring several times. If one can see through the bloodshed to the pain and anguish of the scene, it’s one of the most human moments of the film. Every gash, every cut, every gush of blood, and every fall twists you.
Is it empathy or sympathy one feels as “The Ram” staggers away from where he was being treated and trembles by the locker? The audience is at the peak of “The Ram’s” painful but sometimes glorious existence for a strung-out moment before he collapses and is found in a hospital bed and it is revealed that the peak of his painful existence may be experienced again and again but from now on without the glory.
He has had a heart attack. “The Ram” looks on with fear and dismay. A man whose life may have been shattered before is now truly shattered. Doctor tells him he can no longer exercise like he has been, he can no longer take all the drugs or enhancements for his body that he takes regularly, and he can no longer wrestle.
Now, the audience gets the human story it came to see---the story of how one walks away from his or her passion, the very thing that defines him or her.
“The Ram’s” world without wrestling is one where fallibility is a predator that is constantly preying upon a man who thinks of himself as a Hercules of the ring. It’s a world of isolation and detachment from a society he doesn’t know how to maneuver around. But, it’s also a tender opportunity to open up a connection with people whom he hasn’t been open with---Cassidy and a daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who he ran away from years ago and has ignored ever since.
The two provide the dimensions for the remainder of the story. How “The Ram” acts through these two shows how much pride and glory he derives from wrestling.
Cassidy’s character has a strong presence in the story. Despite the fact that she is a stripper, she is first and foremost a mother with a nine year-old son. Stripping puts food on the table for her son to eat and it pays the rent. That is why she strips. It’s also why she has rules for what she does; she draws a line and refuses to interact with customers outside of paid-for lap dances and pole dancing encounters.
When “The Ram’s” heart attack forces him to confront his mortality and to notice that he has been a destructive force to himself and others around him, he finds in Cassidy a woman who he can talk to and use to repair his life. Cassidy talks and offers advice for “The Ram” which concerns his daughter.
Stephanie is the salt in Randy’s wounds, a person who Randy should be close with but is not. The heart attack forces Randy to battle his regrets. Unlike a wrestling match, there is no crowd for him to pump up as he takes them on.
Randy buys a gift to convince Stephanie to talk to him after all the years he spent paying no attention to her.