The Ironic Vision of Salvation in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler [2008]

Was Newsweek intending to be ironic? I don't really think so...

Was Newsweek intending to be ironic? I don’t really think so…

Randy “The Ram” Robinson (AKA Robin Ramzinski) is a professional wrestler past his expiry date. Popular in the 80s, he continues to live for his former fame—wrestling on the weekends while he makes a living shoving boxes at the local grocery store. His best “friend” and confidant is a stripper, Cassidy—also past her prime and living in the past—for whose services he regularly pays. In the film we follow Randy through a crisis of identity when, because of heart problems, he can no longer wrestle. So he asks for more hours at the grocery store, seeks to amend his relations with his daughter, and attempts to advance his relationship with Cassidy. Randy, played superbly by Mickey Rourke, is eminently likeable; you earnestly yearn for him to succeed. But in the end all these efforts fail, and Randy, despite the danger, turns back to the one thing he knows and does well: he returns to the ring. In the final frame we are left to wonder if this choice has led to his death.

The Wrestler is a movie about professional wrestling, about aging, about identity, and about brokenness. It is also a movie about salvation. This is a connection—between professional wrestling and salvation—which may seem either strained or obvious, depending on your attentiveness to the images in the film. Let me see if I can make it explicit. Early on in the movie, after a night of wrestling, Rourke visits Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) in order to ‘relax.’ While she gyrates alluringly on his lap, they have a bizarre conversation—in fact, Rourke seems totally disinterested in her body; he mostly just wants to talk. At the end of her dance, Tomei re-clothes herself and, drawing close to Rourke, exclaims, “Oh Jesus, you’re bleeding” (he had cut himself wrestling earlier that night). This prompts Rourke to begin talking about and pointing to his various injuries in the wrestling ring, and in response, Tomei begins to quote, of all things, from Isaiah 53:

He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities.
The punishment that brought us peace was upon him;
And by his wounds we were healed.

This is an almost absurdly ‘on the nose’ moment—apparently, we are to think of “The Ram” as a Christ figure, working out our salvation in the ring, enduring suffering on our behalf and vicariously for us. When Rourke expresses confusion about what Tomei has just recited, she tells us that it’s from “The Passion of the Christ” and seals the deal further by commenting that Rourke “has the same hair”—that is, Jesus hair.The Wrestler: Jesus Hair

While this is the single most ‘on the nose’ Christ-figure moment in the film, there are other nods to the Christ motif as well. For example, “The Ram” has a tattoo of Jesus’ face in the upper middle of his back—one that is obscured most of the time by his long flowing Jesus-locks. Lastly, in the closing shot of the movie, when Rourke is once again taking the stage at great personal risk, ostensibly for the fans but also for himself, he stands, in obvious pain, upon the corner ropes and stretches out his arms in a semblance of the cross—his signature move—before jumping to what may be his death.

A cursory judgment about these images would lead us to conclude that Randy “The Ram” is a Christ figure and that the wrestling ring is a metaphor for suffering on behalf of others. But while the images seem to lead us there I’m not so sure that’s what director Darren Aronofsky has in mind. In fact, I think that he is making a far more subtle and ironic point, and while I still believe that The Wrestler is a film about salvation, it is a skewed vision of salvation—one that frames a corrupted and failed salvation. The Wrestler, in short, is about how we attempt to create our own salvation through escape, about how we miss the pervasive clues which point to real salvation, and ultimately, about how we fail.

From the start, then, wrestling and exotic dancing seem clearly to be metaphors for escape, and Rourke and Tomei are clearly images of people who have dwelt too long in the realm of their escapes. Professional wrestling is the escape into imitated violence, imitated drama; it is the vicarious experience of violent drama for the benefit of a testosterone-fueled audience. Exotic dancing is a sad parody of relationship. Both are paid experiences. Both ‘careers’ demand bodies which are sculpted and unrealistic. Both are boundaried and fabricated experiences. Both answer the longing for something far more real and more elusive, but at the same time both deceive us powerfully. And yet we are willing to be deceived. As Marisa Tomei gyrates alluringly above Mickey Rourke’s body, we are struck by the fact that she does not touch him in much the same way that he will fake his hits in the ring. A fake relationship, a fake fight, and both are escapes for which people eagerly pay.

The arc of the story, then, is to get both these characters out of their respective rings. Rourke must step out of the glamour of the 80s and into real life, and Tomei must leave her dancer’s den and care for her son. All this brings into particular focus one scene where Randy and Cassidy (whose real name is Pam) meet outside a thrift shop in daytime. They are both outside of their showcase workplaces. They are both ‘out of costume’ and are both, for the moment, real people. But what stands out remarkably is what is framed behind their heads during their conversation—that is, key words on the marquees behind them. Behind Mickey Rourke’s head are the words, in Spanish, “Jesus es el Señor”—translation, “Jesus is Lord.” Behind Marisa Tomei’s head are the words, “Clothing.” The words may be in the background, but their intention seems clear: both characters are shopping for something, and what they need is written for us to see.The Wrestler_Jesus is Lord

The Wrestler_ClothingBut, notably, the characters themselves cannot see it. Jesus is tattooed on Ram’s back, right when he’s always present but always invisible. It’s an interesting choice, and one that is reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s story Parker’s Back, in which the main character, although not religious, gets a tattoo of Jesus in the middle of his back. In that story, Jesus is present everywhere, giving order to chaos, but Parker refuses to submit. Misery drives him to Christ, but he refuses to see. Similarly, misery is driving Jesus-tattooed Rourke to a salvation outside of himself. We, the reader/viewer, can clearly see the grander story, but the characters within are blinded by their experiences.

In the end, “The Ram” goes back into the ring—he returns to his escape, to the fake world. He even claims that “The only place I get hurt is out there.” Real life is true pain, the wrestling arena is joy. Pam leaves her club and quits her job, coming to try and convince Randy to go away with her. He refuses, and she departs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the unspoken ending for her character, she doesn’t end up back in the strip club again.

What The Wrestler brings into focus is the sad and disturbing fact that Jesus is everywhere present but rarely acknowledged; ubiquitous, but ignored. The marks of grace surround Randy “The Ram”—in his strip club, behind his head, on his very body, and even in his ‘signature’ move—but he himself is unable to see them. Instead, he returns to his old ways, his old patterns. He quits his job, fails at repairing his relationship with his daughter, and takes his life into his own hands by going back into the ring. He engages in a twisted parody of salvation–one that resembles Jesus, but isn’t him. In this way he is an anti-hero, an example not to be followed, and what he represents most clearly is our propensity to choose a ‘salvation’ within our own grasp, our own power, rather than receive a real salvation on Someone Else’s terms. The proverb is once again proved: “As a dog returns to his vomit”—so also “The Ram” returns to what is poison in his life. And like him we also are trapped by the blindness of our cheap and meagre expectations; Jesus on our backs and hovering above our heads but never before our eyes. We are ignorant of the salvation that surrounds and permeates our lives.

The Wrestler was a poignant and challenging film, but I believe its deepest poignancy lies in its ironic presentation of the salvation narrative in the anti-salvation figure of Randy “The Ram.” And perhaps a final comment is in order regarding Mickey Rourke’s presence in the film. Many people have felt that The Wrestler bore striking parallels to the real-life narrative of Rourke’s life, praising his performance (which was indeed sublime) as a comeback similar to the story-arc of the film. (Newsweek even called it Rourke’s “Resurrection”!) And this should give us pause—“The Ram” finds his escape in the vicarious world of the ring, and his rest in the vicarious world of the strip club. But what world is more pervasively vicarious, and more pervasively fake, than the world of cinema? And to what degree are we, through our choices of escape, seeking to work out a kind of vicarious salvation through each paid entry into the cinematic world? And to what degree do we miss the presence of Jesus in the cinema house because we’re looking for something else? Make no mistake–Jesus is as present in cinema as he is in real life. But if we seek only escape, if our ends are false, then we will be as blind as the anti-hero of The Wrestler. 

[NB: The Wrestler is a fine piece of cinema, but I in no way recommend it to the casual viewer—not least because it is replete with nudity.]

3 comments on “The Ironic Vision of Salvation in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler [2008]

  1. Arun says:

    Just watched the film and man, I have to say you nailed the underlying symbolism of the movie. The idea of a christ figure permeates much of film and literature, not exculding “The Wrestler.” I found that the use a christ figure focused our sympathies with the protagonist, Randy, and his physical and emotional suffering. Additionally, the gratuitous violence and blood mirrored the movie referenced briefly in the film “The Passion of The Christ.” Was Aronofsky deliberate in making Randy a christ figure? I can’t say for certain, but I agree with you: true salvation hides beneath the escapism and nostalgia that deludes Randy.

    On-point analysis!


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