29 January 2009

Essential Pre-Super Bowl Viewing: The Wrestler (2008)

Much attention has been lavished on Mickey Rourke’s performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, the tale of a washed-up professional brawler. According to NYT critic A.O. Scott, Rourke executed his role with a “sly, hulking grace” and Variety gushed that the actor “creates a galvanizing, humorous, deeply moving portrait that instantly takes its place among the great, iconic screen performances.” And to place credit where credit is due, Rourke is pretty amazing and his embodiment of corporeal decline is visually stunning.

But, in my opinion, these treatments--focused primarily on the portrayal of the ravages of aging--skirt the serious issues raised by the movie. For, at its heart, The Wrestler is an engagement with the social consequences of our particular and peculiar contemporary culture of entertainment. And it takes on this theme through a most rare approach for Hollywood films: the depiction of labor. We see the preparations for work: tanning body, bleaching hair, shaving armpits, pushing weight, practicing with different props, and assembling the right uniform. Next, we witness the camaraderie of the beat-up wrestlers behind the scenes, sharing techniques and body-bulking medicines. Then there is the familiar punishing spectacle of the bout, followed by a depressing look at the wrestler’s domestic life—a medley of deteriorated domiciles and damaged relationships. This is the price, Aronofsky tells us, of a visual culture obsessed with huge men slamming into each other.

If the grit borders on excessive, so does the culture it criticizes.

It’s something to think about this weekend as close to 100 million Americans gather to watch a televised spectacle that regularly features sprained ankles, torn ligaments, exploded tendons, broken bones, heat strokes, and concussions. And all the while, the people running the show do their best to downplay the dangers and silence the sufferers.

So before you sit down this Sunday to take in the Super Bowl, head out tonight or tomorrow to watch The Wrestler. See if it doesn't change how you feel about those dazzling tackles and demolishing sacks.


p.s. I should also note that if ever an Oscar were awarded for “All-Time Best Use of 1980s Music in a Film,” The Wrestler is a shoo-in. The selection of tunes and timing are pitch perfect.