You can’t help but wonder at the autobiographical aspects of The Wrestler – for all his spandex and the lank blonde hair and the slf-mutilation, at a very visceral level Mickey Rourke isn’t entirely acting this. I have read some comments that this is a film full of cliches redeemed by Rourke’s performance but (whilst not taking anything away from Rourke’s outstanding performance) that’s harsh. For here is a tragedy: Randy the Ram is, at an almost biological level, a performer: it is only as a performer that his life has any value even to him, let alone anyone else, and he is only ever in his element – the sparkle returns – when he is “performing”. Thereby performance becomes a means of communication outside the ring, too: roughousing with kids outside the van he’s been sleeping in, delivering egg salad, Cocktail-style, to elderly ladies over the deli counter at the local supermarket or carousing with the wrestlers, who still lionise him, backstage. Aaronofsky’s camera reinforces this point – we track behind Randy’s head not only as he strides out to the ring, but as he marches out to the deli counter and marches in to meet the gang backstage.
That performs as a way of living is fascinatingly counterpointed by his only (half-way successful) real life relationship, with Cassidy, a stripper, in many ways a very similar sort of a performer (we frequently also track behind Cassidy’s head) but dispositionally the negative image: for Cassidy is *condemned* to perform to live (i.e. to earn a crust), and for her, performance is the only part of her life that has no meaning, and is the part she is most desperate to leave behind.
That Randy has the misfortune not to apprehend this drives the drama in The Wrestler. Cassidy and Randy are star-cross’d lovers: the two connect only when he’s not performing and (QED, since he’s a customer) she is. Like oil and water Cassidy feels forced to keep him segregated from her real self, within the context of her life as a performer; he wants her only outside of his. That is the tragic dilemma around which this film revolves, and while it may be constructed out of hackneyed archetypes it overcomes them handsomely.