Films of the decade: "The Wrestler"

Mickey Rourke's battered visage -- and amazing performance -- bring back my own less-than-golden wrestlin' career

Published December 24, 2009 2:30PM (EST)

A still from "The Wrestler"
A still from "The Wrestler"

"The Wrestler" is on HBO. I still have an analog TV, so "this movie has been modified from its original version," meaning it's in pan and scan. I own the movie on DVD. I can view it in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It's a very good film, a future classic even. I should pop in that DVD and preserve the dimensions of director Darren Aronofsky's canvas, but I'm 10 minutes into it. I'm done. I'm watching the whole thing and staying up way past my bedtime in the process, all to watch a movie with a clipped aspect ratio, one I've seen several times already.

My review of "The Wrestler" from last year was my first Open Salon blogpost to be chosen as an editor's pick. I used to wrestle and emcee for a low-rent, punk-rock wrestling league in San Francisco called Incredibly Strange Wrestling. Even with ISW's postmodern, ironic bent, I've dealt with guys just like Randy "The Ram" Robinson, the down-and-out former superstar brought to life by Mickey Rourke in an Oscar-nominated performance. I've been in backrooms of municipal ballrooms, rodeo fairgrounds and nightclubs where shirtless guys, half in and half out of their spandex, discussed at great length whether to "work" the leg or the neck.

There's a scene in the "The Wrestler" where Randy and one of his ring colleagues go through a 99-cent store picking up bric-a-brac to bash each other over the head with during an upcoming match. This scene brings back a flood of memories. Ever since my days of being in the wrestling show, I can't get through a Home Depot without checking out the prices of particle board picnic tables and steel folding chairs. I haven't been involved with a wrestling show since 2003, but I'm still figuring out how the wares of certain stores can be utilized in the squared circle. Several times throughout its 109-minute running time, "The Wrestler" fills me with a wistful nostalgia that turns to PTSD on a dime. If "The Wrestler" evokes these feelings in me, someone who has toured with this particular variety of carnival, it can also take those of you who've never been involved with pro wrestling and completely immerse you in someone else's reality. That's what great cinema does.

Sure, "The Wrestler" isn't perfect. Plot-wise, it doesn't give us anything that wasn't done in the 1931 boxing picture, "The Champ." In "The Champ," Wallace Beery plays a boozing former boxing belt-holder who lives in squalid flophouses (Randy the Ram lives in a trailer, the modernized equivalent), has a strained relationship with his son, and (double-spoiler alert) ends up dying from a heart attack in the ring. "The Wrestler" has maybe a little too much in common with "The Champ," but so does the original "Rocky." Like "The Wrestler," "Rocky" is another movie where if I watch that first 10 minutes, I'm cooked. I'm watching the whole thing whether it's on Blu-ray Disc or some old pan-and-scan VHS tape with overly saturated magenta tones and occasional flickering snow.

I've often proclaimed to no one in particular that I'm skipping Blu-ray and just waiting for whatever comes next. "The Wrestler" is one of those movies, along with "The Searchers," "Touch of Evil," "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad," "Rocky" and "Goodfellas" that make me rethink this position. Can the greater pixel count that comes with high-def, where every crag on Rourke's shopworn face would be even more apparent, draw me even deeper into the reality of "The Wrestler"? Can I even take such a thing if it does? These questions may send me on a trip to Best Buy yet.

Film Salon has invited a group of special guests to write about their favorite film(s) of the 2000s. To read the entire series, go here.

By Bob Calhoun

Bob Calhoun is a longtime Salon contributor and the author of "Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor" (2013). Follow him on Twitter.

MORE FROM Bob Calhoun

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Best Of The Decade Film Salon Films Of The Decade Movies