It’s interesting that, to wrestling fans at least, The Wrestler (starring Mickey Rourke in what by all accounts was the role of his career) has the reputation of being a movie focused on presenting a realistic reputation about the perils of wrestling that plague all too many washed up old legends after the WrestleMania lights fade and they are left to their own devices. And this reputation is well-deserved; everything that this movie covers is done so in a way that seems so authentic. That’s probably because a lot of it is; WWE Hall of Famer (and one half of the famous Wild Samoans tag team) Afa Anoa’i trained Rourke in the art of wrestling for eight weeks prior to production. A lot of the backstage segments between the wrestlers (also real, as are the promotions of Ring of Honor and the disgustingly hardcore Combat Zone Wrestling, which coincidentally is where current WWE World Heavyweight Champion Dean Ambrose got his start) were improvised to make it feel like they were really socializing. To a non-fan, the inner workings of how a wrestling show is put together, from the razor blade-induced self-mutilation for blood in order to increase drama, to the rampant steroid and prescription drug use, to the conversations between wrestlers going over their spots, to the constant pain these men (and women) are in on a daily basis, is fascinating. For fans of wrestling, and wrestlers themselves, the jarring cinematography that conveys how Randy “The Ram” has trouble even walking around is painful, and the CZW scene complete with staple guns, barbed wire and chair shots is wince-inducing. Because we know that this is a reality for many in the business on a daily basis, and as much fun as we have watching it, there is a dark, very disturbing side to this form of entertainment.
The Wrestler would be a great success even if covering these realities of wrestling was all it did in a similar fashion to what Barry Blaustein accomplished with his acclaimed (and also rather disturbing) wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat. But what really makes this movie a winner is the plethora of moments that take place outside of the ring focusing on the relationships (or lack thereof) between Randy and those around him. He pines after a stripper that, though she does feel something for him, will never give him what he’s really looking for. Every time he returns to the strip club, it’s almost hard to watch, because you know things aren’t going to go his way. Again. But even more emotionally hard-hitting is his estranged relationship with his daughter, who hates him because as a professional wrestler, he spent much more time performing for his fans and traveling up and down the roads than he did with his family. And just when things seem to be looking up in both relationships, it’s snatched away from him leaving him all alone once again. It’s no wonder that so many professional wrestlers can’t give up the tights; it’s not because they don’t want to, it’s because they have nothing else. And that’s what makes The Wrestler a story worth telling, not because it provides an accurate representation of the underside of the wrestling business, but because it illustrates the realities of depression, walks through the shoes of a man on the brink, and delves into how far a man can be willing to go before he takes that last ride.