What can be said, post-Oscar-fuggup, about this sick-hearted anti-American Dream that hasn’t already been said, and kudoed: Darren Aronofsky’s channeling of the Dardennes’ immediacy, Mickey Rourke’s Herculean self-deprecation, both of which currents combining to prove the script’s essential conventionality to be irrelevant, just at a moment in American film in which we had all good reason to think the Industry was completely bankrupt of balls, curiosity, respect and a sense of America itself. (Let’s consider in this broad formulation that 2007 was a modern aberration, unleashing a wave of nation-autopsying megaworks — “There Will Be Blood,” “The Assassination of Jesse James,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Zodiac,” etc. — the likes of which have not been seen since at least 1991; as in, “My Own Private Idaho,” “The Rapture,” “Slacker,” “Tribulation 99,” “Naked Lunch,” et al.)
However you cube it, “The Wrestler” is a gift, for the most part because Rourke was not transforming himself into a preconceived character so much as simply living it, putting his own catastrophes on the table, sacrificing his own body for the sake of the character’s sadness, taking on the story’s essentially Sisyphean nature as if it were his own Calvary. It’s an achievement — far more substantial than Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk impersonation — that resembles the tribulational experience at the heart of a Wiseman or Maysles documentary, more “Grey Gardens” than Method, more self-conscious reality then calculated artifice. Once Rourke was a peerless realist craftsman, but here he’s a found object, incontestable and painful. The mortal fear in his eyes, not in mid-staple-gun-&-barbed-wire assault but even earlier, in the first bouts we see, speaks unprecedented volumes about the cold and merciless heart of American popular culture.
Which is what “The Wrestler” comes down to in terms of text — a lacerating bad-breath vision of exactly how our culture creates and then devours idols, leaving the humiliated, fame-haunted detritus of our media distractions shambling across the landscape in broken old age like stray dogs hunting for roadside scraps. American entertainment culture eats its young, and anyone entering into it for the sake of stage love or glory will most likely end up an embarrassing wreck, trying to get gin mill band gigs or doing dinner theater in Dayton or hawking adult diapers on late-night TV or, as with Rourke’s Randy the Ram, playacting a comic-book brawl in a South Jersey VFW hall, at an age when he absolutely shouldn’t.
It’s scary to consider how much of the audience for “The Wrestler” — nearly $30 million in box office receipts in this country, for a film that cost $7 million — have seen it because of their affection for the milieu, and it’s even scarier to contemplate how many viewers misunderstood the film’s implicit critique of the brutal idiocy of professional wrestling and its lower echelons, and, by extension, the bloodsport instinct oozing from so much of American life. Randy is a pathetic victim, and the film is a majestic tragedy.