Around 30 minutes into Darren Aronofsky's fantastic new movie, The Wrestler, something profoundly strange happens to Christians. As washed-up matman Randy "the Ram" Robinson (an amazing Mickey Rourke) sits with his friend Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), she takes a look at his beefy, punctured frame, to which a recent opponent has taken a nail gun, and begins to quote Isaiah: "He was pierced for our transgressions," she recalls, having seen The Passion of the Christ and liked it. "He was bruised for our iniquities."
Nobody makes a reference like that by accident, least of all Aronofsky, whose meticulous films are always brimming with minute but significant details.
So what on earth is going on? Is Aronofsky being blasphemous? Does he want us to compare Christ to this loser, or does he want us to ignore Ram's sins? Neither, I think, although it may be hard not to jerk in one direction or another as the movie progresses. More on that in a moment.
The Wrestler is rated R for a few reasons, Tomei's character, a stripper, being one of them, and the violence of Ram's profession another. But Aronofsky has done something with the bloodshed in The Wrestler that almost nobody tries to do-he's negated it, and made it fun and kind of sad. These guys are all friends, after all-wrestling is entertainment. It's bad entertainment, in my humble opinion, but there's a fraternity among the performers that extends into the ring. The fighting is blood sport, but the faces and the heels work together to provide the blood, and they go backstage to help patch each other up when the show is over.
The ring, briefly, is the only place where Ram feels loved. Cassidy's job, which is to be close to him, keeps them apart. And Ram has damaged his relationship with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) so badly that there's too much baggage for them ever to reconcile. And even if they do, we can probably count on him to mess it up again-this guy just isn't comfortable in the real world; he's past succeeding, and there may be nothing left to his life.
Given the grainy realism of The Wrestler and its insistent Christ parallels, it's impossible to dismiss two seemingly contradictory ideas: First, Ram is a deeply tacky, depressing loser who continues to throw away his life, and secondly, he's surprisingly good and noble at moments when other people would be pushed to the limit or past it. Maybe this is a stretch, but I wonder if Aronofsky hasn't picked the saddest, most depressing subject he could find and set out to sanctify him-to show us how much like the best of us the worst of us has the capacity to be. Even the deadbeat dad and the stripper are made in God's image, regardless of how they choose to profane it.
I certainly don't expect every Christian to agree with me, and I don't recommend this movie to people who are understandably put off by its rawer moments. But this is the point that Aronofsky seems to be making: One moment you look at a guy's meaty face and unwashed mane of blond hair and you see a pathetic waste. The next moment, you look at it and see the dirty reflection of God himself.
(Editor's Note: This movie review did not appear in the print edition of the Dec. 27, 2008, issue of WORLD, but is offered online as a Web Extra.)