(Ed. Note: Originally published at Film-Think.)
“But there can’t be any love… ’cause there aren’t any people.”
(She’s So Lovely)
If Bazin was right when he said, “the cinema more than any other art is particularly bound up in love,” then The Wrestler is just barely cinema. It is nice to look at, and is by far Aronofsky’s best film to date, but despite frequent nods toward the development of its broken characters he still seems distracted by things like the perfect 80’s track, the proper strip club mood, or catchy flashbacks. Pi, the abhorrent Requiem for a Dream (one of the most pro-addiction films ever made), and the muddled film-school daydream The Fountain (which squanders so much rich imagery), these are all films that are content move their characters around Aronofsky’s chessboard of technical intrigue. His films unfold like a Yahtzee scorecard, attempting to check off predetermined sets of edits and tracking shots in such a way that characters become subordinate to their own blocking. All the buzz about Mickey Rourke’s performance was exciting; I thought that maybe Aronofsky had turned the corner with an actual character study. But as a “proactive documentary,” the film does little to grant Ram any substance other than a flirtation with a redemption subtext and a few scenes with his abandoned daughter.* This criticism is not ignoring the fact that Ram’s character is by nature paper thin; the causes and effects of his anachronistic superficiality is the whole point of the movie. Aronofsky’s ambivalence towards his characters in The Wrestler is demonstrated in the paint-by-numbers movement of Ram through a storyline that has all the depth of a Euripides third act. In his century BCE, Euripides made some interesting narrative moves. But a character with Ram’s awfully modern teleology deserves better than a stripper whose big conundrum is that she can’t date clients, a daughter who is mad at her daddy for staying at the bar for too long, and a service job that pushes his social skills to their limit. By the time we get to the end of the film, Ram’s demise neither fulfills nor subverts the dread that has been growing throughout the film. It simply punctuates it, one more wound in Ram’s broken flesh. It is no different than the end of Nacho Libre, in which Jack Black soars senselessly (yet beautifully) through the air towards the credits. It isn’t the end of Ram in any significant way, it is just the end of the film.
And I get it. That last image is a barbaric yawp, a bold flicker of pure cinema that enervates the history of Ram with a thousand volt pulse of his visceral spirit. But what Aronofsky doesn’t get is that even as a construct, Ram deserves much more than this. At the end Ram recognizes the sacrificial nature of this last performance before his “family,” all those in the audience that have participated in his slow defeat over the years. As it is, Aronofsky has made the audience of The Wrestler part of this ironic family, and the last image is just as lost on us as it will inevitably be on them. And here is why: Aronofsky doesn’t love his characters. Not like Herzog, who treats Kinski’s similar impotence with compassion (friend and fiend), and doesn’t let us leave Stroszek without shouldering the anxiety of its lost soul. Also not like the Dardennes, who in their “proactive documentaries” enable us to love all the broken people in The Son or Rosetta in a John 15 way. Even P.T. Anderson forces us to stumble around with a litany of characters at the end of their rope. Noe even ends Irreversible with an embrace and a kiss. We could go on and on in this list, but unfortunately, Ram would never show up on it. Potential compassion is expressed through positioning the film as “The Passion of Mickey Rourke.” In Ram, his iconic Barfly status is redeemed, the frozen mask of scars accrued from years of boxing granting the film a literal sense of trauma. There is also a stream of references to Isaiah, and sacrificial scars, and the hiss of a traitorous crowd (and even “Ram” harkens back to Abraham and Isaac). There is a sentimentality in every toss of Ram’s hair, one that circumvents Kurt Cobain for the uncomplicated zeal of the 80’s. And Rourke’s mesmerizing performance keeps us at the surface level of his character until we sadly realize that is the only layer – an exhausted will to power. But at no point is Aronofsky hardwired into any of these potential narrative outlets for more than a moment, and I am not sure why. I just don’t understand how a character as perfectly conceived and richly performed as Ram is allowed to exit the film in a vapor of Aronofsky flair. He gets close here to the realism that he claims is the goal of his “proactive documentary,” but Ram remains every bit the pawn in his stylistic gambit as he is in the ring. By the end of the film, Aronofsky hasn’t actually justified all the damage he has done to this massive character. It turns out to be nothing other than a formal device. It’s just torture.
* ”I call it proactive documentary, because I think in a real documentary everything is reactive. If you’re watching Cops and a guy runs away and then a second later the camera chases after the guy and goes after him, we didn’t have that second delay. We kind of knew what the scene was about and we knew where Mickey or Marisa was going to go. So we were able to choreograph that. We kind of had this proactive style where we were working with the actor to give a documentary feeling, allow realism to happen, but we were ready for it.” – This is as tautological as cinema gets. You can’t block and edit scenes like this and cry “realism” at the end.