He once vanquished enemies named The Inferno, The Specter and Davey Diamond. But one foe eluded Randy "The Ram" Robinson's pulverizing piledrivers: time.
Twenty years after reaching the apex of pro wrestling glory—more than a million pay-per-view customers watched The Ram's title victory over the Ayatollah at Madison Square Garden—Randy Robinson's fond memory of better years is the only fuel left in the tank of his broken body. Well, that and some steroids, Percocet and alcohol, all of which Randy relies on to eke out a subsistence wage in New Jersey's independent wrestling circuit.
It's a fraternity of forgotten, battered gladiators still taping elbows and slithering into skin-tight spandex for the sake of the show. A good week pays the rent on Randy's trailer and tops off his painkiller supply. A bad week means spending nights in—what else?—his Dodge Ram Van.
At a local strip club a dancer named Cassidy listens to Randy's woes—never mind that this unlikely confessor rarely wears a shirt. Cassidy also leads a desperate existence trying to coax customers into lap dances to keep a roof over the head of her 9-year-old son. Most aren't interested in someone who, like Randy, is past her prime for her given "profession." Slowly, Randy pursues a relationship with Cassidy. Though she's wary of fraternizing with a regular, Cassidy is willing to help him try to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Stephanie.
So as Randy and Cassidy both prostitute their bodies—one sexually, one violently—the fragile possibility of something more emerges. But Randy's unexpected heart attack, followed by a risky 20th-anniversary rematch with the Ayatollah, threaten to pin the relationship before it has a chance to compete.
Amid mountains of content problems, Randy and Cassidy momentarily offer each other something akin to hope despite lives strewn with emotional wreckage. It's tentative and not without conflict, to be sure, but they're trying to get to know each other as real people, not just as objectified stage personas. Cassidy meets Randy at a thrift shop, for example, to help him pick out clothes for his daughter.
Randy's life is a wasteland of shattered dreams. But beneath his scarred, decrepit exterior is a man of surprising gentleness. That's evident when he tries to reconnect with Stephanie (who's in college) after his heart attack. She thinks he's just looking for someone to sponge off of, and she accuses him of failing to take care of her when she needed it. He agrees, telling her, "I'm the one who was supposed to take care of everything. ... I left you. You never did anything wrong." In one last-ditch effort to regain her trust, he says, "Now I'm an old and broken-down piece of meat. I'm alone. I deserve to be all alone. I just don't want you to hate me." That opens the door to a briefly renewed relationship, though things don't go so well later in the film.
After his heart attack, Randy pursues something resembling normal life by getting a job at a deli. Initially grumpy in the gig, Randy eventually starts to enjoy himself, talking and joking with customers. That enthusiasm is also evident when he mock wrestles with a group of young boys in the trailer park. With one, he plays an old Nintendo game featuring him and the Ayatollah.
Camaraderie and affection mark the wrestlers' relationships backstage as they script moves before each bout. Their mutual respect and concern for one another belies the faux ferocity of their rumbles in the ring. At fan events, Randy is kind to the handful of admirers who show up for a Polaroid with him. He also addresses his fans at the rematch, where he acknowledges the consequences of the life he's led: "If you live hard, play hard, burn the candle at both ends, you're going to pay the price for it."
Cassidy refers to the beating moviegoers watched Jesus take in The Passion of the Christ, quoting Isaiah 53:5: "But he was pierced for our transgressions ... and by his wounds we are healed." She compares Jesus' sufferings to the kind of abuse Randy has absorbed. (She calls him a "sacrificial ram.") Before his big rematch, Randy prays (we see his lips moving silently) and genuflects.
A half-dozen or so long scenes take place at Cassidy's strip club. She repeatedly appears onscreen topless, as do other dancers—most of whom wear only g-strings as they work. Cassidy performs a lengthy lap dance for Randy, and later the camera zooms in on her nearly naked undulations as she pole dances. Trying to convince several young men that Cassidy's not too old, Randy uses an extremely crude description of her anatomy. He and Cassidy have a loud, profanity-strewn argument at the club in which he demeans her by talking explicitly about how she uses certain body parts to lure customers.
In a moment of deep disappointment, Randy gets drunk, snorts cocaine and has sex with someone he's just met—the camera focuses on their graphic movements and her breasts—in the bar's bathroom. Randy has a picture of a woman's breasts in his own bathroom. He walks in on a grocery store manager who's watching a pornographic movie.
Randy thinks his daughter is a lesbian, a suspicion that's reinforced when Stephanie has a passionate fight with her apparent partner. When we first meet Stephanie's roommate, she's wearing a tight T-shirt that highlights the fact that there's no bra underneath. We see Randy in his underwear a couple times.
As you'd expect in a movie about professional wrestling, there's no lack of hitting, kicking, crotch shots and body slamming in Randy's matches. While the action is scripted and "fake," it becomes clear that much of the violence is very real and takes a tremendous toll on these men's bodies.
In one fight, Randy tapes a small fragment of a razor to his hand. After having his head beaten against a turnbuckle, he furtively drags the razor across his forehead to make it look as if he's been cut in combat—a scene actor Mickey Rourke says was real, not a special effect. Other "props" include bug spray, chairs, a garbage pail and even an audience member's prosthetic leg.
An especially vicious match pits him against an opponent who asks if he's ever been stapled. That's right: stapled. During the match, Randy's on the receiving end of at least a dozen staples. (We witness several going in.) His counterpart staples a dollar bill to his own forehead. There's also barbed wire and broken glass in the ring on this occasion, all of which gets embedded in and tears up the flesh of the two fighters. After the match, a doctor digs staples and pieces of glass and wire out of Randy's torso. Both men are drenched in blood.
Another wince-inducing scene comes when Randy intentionally rams his thumb into a meat slicer, then rampages angrily through the grocery store.
Crude or Profane Language
About 50 f-words, close to 15 s-words, 20-plus uses of God's name in vain (including at least a dozen pairings with "d--n") and one abuse of Jesus name. As mentioned, crude references are made to the female anatomy. Accept's song "Balls to the Wall" plays loudly in two scenes.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Randy routinely pops various pills, most of which are presumably narcotic painkillers. After his heart attack and the ensuing bypass surgery, he switches to—or perhaps adds—prescription heart meds.
Randy purchases steroids (and injects them into his bare backside) from a fellow wrestler who's a veritable black market pharmacist. His friend offers Vicodin, Percocet, Demerol, cocaine, Viagra and steroids. It's implied that many if not most wrestlers similarly rely on drugs to get by. Rourke hinted in one interview that he used some kind of performance-enhancing drugs to get into shape for this role: Men's Journal writer Amy Wallace said that when Rourke was asked about steroids or human growth hormones, he "smiled conspiratorially" before saying, "When I'm a wrestler, I behave like a wrestler."
One wrestler has a tattoo of a marijuana plant. Customers drink at the strip club. Randy downs a beer by himself in his trailer. He also imbibes with Cassidy at a bar, and he slams several shots before doing cocaine (we see him snort it) with the woman he's picked up.
Other Negative Elements
Randy and another wrestler go to a grocery store to look for props. They hit each other with merchandise that they don't purchase after damaging. Randy lies to peers, telling them he hasn't had a heart attack.
Among Hollywood's favorite go-to formulas is The Comeback. The Wrestler is such a movie—with a half-twist moonsault. It's a comeback movie without a comeback. It's a story of redemption where there's not much redemption to be found. It's an extremely racy retelling of Rocky, except that Randy "The Ram" Robinson never gets a life-size statue made of him. This story isn't about finally winning again, it's about the success that comes from continuing to try. Randy's journey ultimately reminds him that his hopes and dreams in the real world will never compete with what he experiences in the ring, the only place he truly feels a genuine sense of self-worth and purpose. And that discovery is both a triumph ... and a tragedy.
In a case of life imitating art, The Wrestler also marks the comeback of actor Mickey Rourke, who lost his way in the excess of success that surrounded him in the late '80s. "There were parallels [between me and Randy]," Rourke told Men's Journal. "It was almost embarrassing. There was a lot of shame. A lot of living in disgrace in a state of hopelessness."
Thus, Rourke may be especially qualified to inhabit a character fighting his way back against long odds. And that's exactly what he does: He inhabits the role he was handed in Randy. Under the direction of The Fountain director Darren Aronofsky, Rourke's Ram claws his way toward some shred of dignity, battling a world and a body that have both betrayed him.
It's compelling stuff, to be sure.
But while Rourke held nothing back on the set, neither does this utterly unfiltered movie hold anything back on the screen. When Randy haunts his favorite strip club, the camera follows right behind, documenting the raw exploitation that surrounds him. When barbed wire and broken glass puncture his skin, we very nearly feel his pain. Sex, drugs and piledrives are what Randy's life encompasses. And, so, sex, drugs and piledrives are what this movie embraces as it offers a front row seat ... at the ring and at the front of the strip club stage.