The Wrestler (review)

The Wrestler (US 2008)
d. Darren Aronofsky

The Wrestler is Aronofsky’s most ambitious film to date, not because it induces squeamishness any more than his first two did, but because its ambiguous treatment of its subject is so unsettling.

Aronofsky gets much devilish glee out of showing us the decline of this wretched embodiment of lümpen American culture. Randy “The Ram” Robinson (wonderfully incarnated by Mickey Rooney) is everything intellectuals love to hate about the US. His arch-nemesis is The Ayatollah, a shaven-skulled black American who dons a turban and waves around a flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran until he gets some democratic sense knocked into him by the Ram while testosterone-high onlookers chant “USA! USA!” Robinson decorates his walls with playboy pinups, hangs out in strip joints drinking lite beer and listens to the kind of hair-rock power ballads that make you nostalgic for the days when heavy metal meant singing about Satan and narcotics.

“The Ram” represents the kind of America we love to caricature, and one that Aronofsky is only too happy to ridicule. But when we meet Robinson, this culture is already twenty years into its decline. Even today with the revival of Iron Maiden shirts, the (abortive) reappearance of Guns ’n’ Roses and the regrettable persistence of AC/DC, the culture of 80s hair metal is not likely to overcome the state of near-universal derision it finds itself in. But Robinson’s lot is worse than that bad style. Unlike those of us who flirted with that culture as we hit the first pangs of adolescence, the victims of Robinson’s run are not just bad hair and bewildered parents.

He enters his autumn years unmarried, uneducated (when a fan asks for an autograph he asks how to spell “Evan”) and unqualified for anything but unskilled labour. He has sunk from superstar to underclass, abandoned by lovers, friends, even his daughter. As we watch him find solace in strip bars, or among the misfits of the wrestling community, or in the overzealous fist-in-the-air confidence of 80s pop-metal, we can’t help but feel something more than sympathy for Robinson. This ambiguity is what makes The Wrestler more unsettling than Requiem for a Dream. This man could not be entirely without value, you think. Perhaps there is something to that culture after all…

This is the film’s achievement, summed up in the final scene as The Ram prepares to pounce on the Ayatollah. At a time when Iran is once again sitting on the chopping block of imperial injustice, we would like nothing more than to revel in the humiliation of American arrogance. Yet somehow we need him to succeed. The Wrestler makes us feel that an ugly man in lycra underwear about to engage in an act of public racism to the soundtrack of the worst American cock rock might be human after all.


  1. What a phenomenal review! I wish you had written it a year earlier when the entire world hadn't seen the film. Great review nonetheless.

  2. The dire Guns and Roses most certainly were a hair metal band but must disagree as to your categorisation of AC/DC and Iron Maiden. I care for neither but Iron Mainden are more usually viewed as a NWOBHM outfit.

    Thankfully singing about Satan and drugs remains central to the concerns of Doom and Drone metal bands. Curious that a genre usually viewed as mysogynist and stoopid has produced some of the most vital 'popular' music of recent years.


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