The Wrestler: an American Tragedy

As a kid, I watched the Super Swedish Angel, Gorgeous George, and Primo Carnera (former boxer), wrestle on a small black and white TV screen. I would scream from my living room at the TV because the ref always looked elsewhere when the villain delivered a rabbit punch. The “bad guys” used dirty tactics and occasionally even “won” the match.

I also adored watching Roller Derby. The “bad” team members pulled the hair of or punched their virtuous rivals and threw them over the rail of the skating rink. After pretending to suffer excruciating pain they would return heroically moments later to the skating procession.

Such “sports” transfixed my pre teen imagination long before I understood such spectacles as symptoms of a sick streak lodged in popular culture – and in me as a twelve year old. I adored that “entertainment” (vicarious sensation) in which audiences (like me) sucked pleasure from watching one person administer pain – theatrically — to another. Indeed, “ultimate fighting” on TV and deadly dog matches fought clandestinely have become as integral to pop culture as NASCAR.

As an adult, I made movies which, like wrestling, are based on tricks to make the product look real. Audiences check their bullshit detectors at the box office to escape for two hours of joy at feeling vicariously other people’s pain in the ring; or romance and death from fleeting and very large images on the big screen.

By the 1980s, “show business” wrestling combatants inflicted deep pain on their opponents. Such violent choreography enlarged the meager audience of my childhood. The wrestling industry grew from a hokey TV show into extravaganzas with major advertisers and large, raucous crowds. Multiple TV cameras showed veritable orgies inside the arenas as show-biz wrestlers broke chairs over their opponents’ heads and tossed them into the titillated crowd. Hulk Hogan became a national icon, albeit not necessarily beloved.

“The Wrestler,” directed by Darren Aronofsky, brings to the screen a hero and heroine from both garish “sports.” Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) knows his career peaked more than a decade earlier. His clippings and publicity photos from bygone eras hang on a wall as mementos of his past. He now works at a low-paid day-job in a chain market, carrying boxes from the delivery truck to the shelves. But, on weekends, he still forces his battered, sun-lamp tanned, steroid filled body into the ring at second rate arenas – no more TV for him. Randy takes pills for pain, we understand, as a medic bandages his cuts and sutures his wounds. The phony fights hurt like hell.

Rourke consciously uses his oversized physique to contrast with the gentleness of his body language – outside the ring. His muscles belie his powerlessness, another metaphor for America in the world. Rourke’s every word and body movement suggests pain as his dominant feeling. Alongside the scars, Rourke also shows the character lines of determination that keep him fixated on the only thing for which he has won the adoration of fans – none of whom know him. The face, which we see in close-ups through the film, shows his stoic core. This lonely giant has his followers, his reputation, and his community of wrestlers, men who smash each other over the head with hard objects and shoot staples into each other’s flesh to please the seedy hordes who scream for blood and violence. Backstage his fraternity brothers compose their ring moves with brotherly intimacies before stepping into their show roles of evil monsters and noble warriors.

The choreographed matches include maneuvers in which Randy inserts a piece of razor blade into adhesive tape, and then, when the crowd focuses on his evil foe blustering, cuts his own forehead and bleeds. These rehearsed fights offer old time morals in which the crowd boo the bad and cheer the good as the men slap, smash, crush or staple each other. One of Randy’s ring partners affirms before their match: “I’m the heel, and you’re the face.”

Randy is hot for Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper-lap dancer at a Bad a Bing equivalent in New Jersey, where the film takes place. She feels ambivalent about Ram’s advances  when he suggests something beyond a customer-client relationship. Like Ram, she earns her living from her body and like the giant wrestler time has worn away her unlined face.

Like Randy, she sells her body to clients. Her still firm breasts must give horny men their money’s worth while she straddles them. Randy’s artificially muscled and much scarred hulk offers a similar temptation to those who lust after vicarious violence. One tempts customers with false sexuality, the other with staged violence. In each case, those who pay want the sensation of sensational sex and violence.

Contemporary culture has transformed desire into vulgar lust at the strip clubs; wrestling shows offer a vent for hatred, a chance for the frustrated to scream with pleasure at others writhing in pain. Tits and ass and violence and blood: commodities sold by the entertainment industry to sectors of the unfulfilled working classes.

In the locker room, putting on their costumes, the wrestlers embrace one another as members of a fraternity who share pain and pretend to hate one another in the ring. Just as Ram feels no malice toward those who shoot staples into his flesh, Cassidy does not feel attraction to those she dry humps: two sad pretenders.

In the trailer park where he lives, the landlord locks him out when he doesn’t pay his rent. But the local kids adore him. He fake wrestles them and lets them play him as a character in a real Nintendo wrestling game. He clings to that fragile identity as his only link to life.

Lonely and in pain, we see him downing pills with his beer, steroids, painkillers, uppers and downers that allow him to keep getting chairs smashed on his head and staples sunk into his flesh. He regrets deserting his daughter, and his failure to build an intimate relationship with Cassidy.

After he suffers a post-fight heart attack, the doctors forbid him to keep wrestling. Randy signs on for extra hours working the deli counter, where suspicious customers behave as polar opposites of his idolizing fans. Randy must wear a name tag, Robin Ramsinski, an identity he has long abandoned for the image of Randy The Ram.

Alone, with death hovering, Randy attempts again to connect with Cassidy who also has made bad life decisions. Both live on the edge where a missed payment means eviction, homelessness and the final infliction of pain on the streets. When the big, broken down, gentle wrestler offers her companionship, her deep inner caution responds to eschew involvement, not with a lovable guy, but with a client, to whom she has administered lap dances. No matter how sweet and attractive she finds him, it’s too risky for a woman who has obviously paid a heavy price for her earlier romantic risks: a single mom having to risk her dignity to support her kid.

Having screwed up his reconciliation attempt with his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), he then clumsily fails to convince Cassidy to make a life with him.  He quits his job after a customer recognizes him behind the market’s deli counter scooping potato salad into a plastic container. With no visible options, the broken-hearted (literally) Ram reschedules a fight with the arch fiend of wrestling, a black man who named himself The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller).

“The world don’t give a shit about me,” he rationalizes. The only ones who care don’t know him except as the blond muscled hunk in tights that takes all the pain bad guys dish out and still wins: the American dream.

The Ayatollah enters the ring, and the crowd without John McCain sings “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran.” The berserk patriots cheer Randy’s entrance. He deserves them since he thinks of himself as “an old, broken-down piece of meat.” He’s the idol they don’t know; they’re his vicarious extended family. He fights for them – an abstraction. That’s what he does.

The film with hand held camera records trailer parks, V.F.W. halls, modern mall markets and sleazy arenas. No fancy people or houses, just New Jersey working class neighborhoods in the winter; a fitting parable for the USA in 2009. The Wrestler, like much of low income America, remains uncomplaining in distress. He sees no relief from the pain in his body – even when hundreds cheer for him. He embodies the prototypical macho male feelings, hurting deeply and unable to share his deep sadness — the impossible weight of loneliness.

SAUL LANDAU is an IPS Fellow, author of A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD (Counterpunch) and director of forty films, available on dvd from

SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.