Humorless people will actually say out loud that they don’t like professional wrestling because it’s “fake,” which means simply that they’re missing many points. Despite rigged endings, you must admit that WWF antics are only slightly more surreal than boxing, hockey, or Entertainment Tonight, and as this film makes clear, the violent fans and the wrestlers’ bruises prove that the brutality is mostly real. What’s surprising about this movie as a cultural artifact, then, is how director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain), one of the most humorless auteurs in the biz, manages to get the ironies, then inject them subtly into the background. The result? A raw (but sometimes noble) vision of humanity that becomes the focus of the viewer’s rapt attention.
Equally unpredictable is what really emerges from The Wrestler: an unlikely sweetness. (There is not a lot of obvious symbolism exploited; it’s not based on a John Irving novel.) Certainly there’s mayhem-though I found it easier to watch than actual violent wrestling matches, or the drubbings featured in either Rocky or Raging Bull. What you’re more likely to recall from this clash of the pathos titans is Mickey Rourke offering kind words to his fellow hulks, encouraging his broke-back, bedraggled fans, or messing around with the kids in the dusty trailer park he can barely call home. Rourke’s forte is his gentle giant lumbering walk and puppy dog head tilts. But that suddenly gives way to the biker bravado of the ring. And even better, Rourke has an authentic vein of self-destructiveness to mine.
This may be just another rewrite of Death of a Salesman. After all, it’s the story of an American worker who comes home from the road to find his family collapsed and his prospects falling away like autumn leaves. But it’s also a two-hour tour of a world that combines the iconography of Norse mythology with the philosophy of P.T. Barnum. For that reason alone, The Wrestler is great. Even though it’s only a movie and, in the end, mostly fake.