The Wrestler: On Escaping Artificially Maintained Glory

In The Wrestler, faded star Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s wizened face is severely disconnected from his freakish build. Look into Randy’s eyes, and you see a lonely, middle aged man clinging onto a distant past. Look at the rest of Randy’s body, and you see a mismatched machine that’s viciously grappling with athletes half his age at local amateur wrestling events.

Randy’s held together by a grocery list of artificial products designed to fuel his pursuit of All-American glory from yesteryear. On a typical errand run, he shells out rent money on steroids, pills, hair extensions, dye, manicures, tanning booth rentals, you name it.

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On one level, Randy can be readily dismissed as a “freak of nature.” But is he really all that different from thousands of entertainers who use non-natural products or digital imaging services to boost performance and improve appearance? Like Randy, much of this country is in a breathless pursuit to preserve the outward appearance of high performance regardless of fundamental internal flaws or health risks.

In a results-orientated society, the final image of youthful attractiveness and perfectly sculpted physique eclipses questions on just how these appearances are cultivated. It’s always the glossy images that prevail over textual warnings of long-term side effects.

Thus, even in modern films which unleash a skeptical take on athletes’ dangerous dietary and training practices, glorious visuals diverge from vitriolic dialect. In Any Given Sunday, two hours of harsh dialogue and even a few harrowing scenes of on field violence still feel like mere procedural rites on the way to the film’s final scenes of triumph. Ultimately the film’s focus gives way to final images of the young, strikingly handsome, multi-million dollar franchise studs — Willie Beaman (Jaimie Foxx), Julian Washington (L.L. Cool J), and Jimmy Sanderson (Bill Bellamy) — as they win a playoff game, unify as a team, and advance their lucrative careers.

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In The Wrestler, there is no results-orientated celebration for Randy, save for some late 80s newspaper clippings scattered across his beat-up van. Randy’s face may be artificially tanned and decorated with a dyed hair, but he still can’t hide his wrinkles, weathered eyes, or drooping eyelids.

Ironically, Randy’s chemically souped up body is contributing to a broken life as reflected on his withered mien. He lives in a trailer rental he can barely afford; the money he collects from his local wrestling gigs come in thin envelopes of cash. Save for his daughter, who is more or less estranged from his life, Randy has no other family to rely on.

Even if Randy acknowledges that a more routine, emotionally satisfying existence may be his only path to long-run survival, his artificially fueled body cannot accept these conditions:

Some may say that the The Wrestler is the ultimate anti-American sports film. But Randy’s image-orientated conflict is actually more deeply and universally American than is the case with most sports film protagonists. The enormous, aged Randy is a monstrous symbol of a society torn between an acknowledged need for a slower, more austere culture to preserve its resources, and an obsession with expensive artificial elixirs toward good looks, strength, and applause.

Through Randy, The Wrestler argues that changing one’s direction in life is a by far harder and more complicated battle than the straightforward pursuit of victory. The transition also happens to the totality of our current cultural state after fleeting instances of youth and glory fade.

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