The Wrestler: Mere Oblivion

“…one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages…
…Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion…”

Shakespeare: As You Like It

Two lead performers and one director all in need of a hit, and they go make a film about the haunting, growing awareness that the last of Shakespeare’s ages of man is coming to us all. I’d almost forgotten about Micky Rourke; but here he is playing himself, an (in his character’s words) old beaten up piece of meat, a washed up wrestler living in trailer park, working in a store to make ends meet while he pedals himself round two-bit dives in front of fans who grew up in when his character, ‘The Ram’ was in his athletic prime; a wrestler who’s nemesis was known as ‘The Ayotollah’. How the world has changed since then – politics have shifted, his body isn’t what it was….but still he puts it out on display for the paying public.

The film follows him as his body breaks down and he reaches out to a woman he’s known for a long time in her professional capacity – Cassidy, a pole-dancing stripper played by Marisa Tomei, trying to make ends meet for her 9 year-old son. Their relationship is on, off, on and off as they test the boundaries between customer and performer. He also tries to reach out to his estranged daughter (the film’s only really false note – a cliche too far, when the tight focus on one central relationship would have worked better). He’s in denial of his aging, and it can only lead one way; Cassidy at least has a dream of a place to buy for her and her son, stored away as a photo on her phone. Only one of these two trapped adults is likely to escape, and it’s not the aging wrestler, seemingly addicted to self-destruction.

So this is a film about aging, but it’s also about so much more. It’s about longing to escape – I find it interesting that the film’s closing song is provided by Bruce Springsteen, because these characters longing to escape are exactly the ones about whom he’s been writing all his career. It’s also about abuse of the body – using it to make a living, putting it one the line for others (note the reference to Passion Of the Christ by Cassidy early on in the film); I can’t think of a better portrayal of the de-humanising effect of using your body as a means of income….although I would have liked to see more of a hint of the way this may similarly break Cassidy’s spirit, at least in some form. Did her son know? The hint is that he does, but we could have done with more on that, in place of the stuff about The Ram’s daughter. She may have be better at drawing the line between performer and person, but does that mean it doesn’t damage her, to use her body the way that she does?

In the next weeks Micky Rourke may well win Oscars and BAFTAs for this; as may (and this would be even more deserved) Marisa Tomei. Ultimately, though, this is just a very sad film. That’s a strength – it could so easily have been a good film that sells out at the end with a sense of triumph or at least the implication of escape. It’s to everyone’s credit that this doesn’t happen. His destiny is that of the addict who can’t give up. Hers may be the relationship that promises but would surely ultimately be toxic. They’re trapped by their age, by their frailties, by the gifts of their bodies that they use as commodities not expressions of themselves. They need a rescuer, a true friend. It is, quite literally as the ending implies, heart-breaking to them both that they will never find such a person.

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