Last Thursday night I slept for two hours, because I had seen a 10:45 p.m. showing of “The Wrestler” with a friend, came home and was going to write a few words just to get them off my chest, and those few words turned into 1008 words (I just counted). I went to bed at 2:00 instead of 12:45 a.m. and then, at 4:00 a.m., I awoke, not to return to sleep again until my alarm went off at 6:00. Somewhere in that two-hour span, I figured out how “The Wrestler” transformed in my mind from one of the bleakest movies I had ever seen to containing some redemptive elements. I won’t say that it is “very” redemptive. It is not. But I found redemption amidst green neon tights and steroids. [Movie spoiler alert: If you plan to see “The Wrestler,” be advised that the plotline and ending are discussed below.]
I had written on and on, about 1001 words or so to be exact, about how Mickey Rourke’s character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler past his glory days, chose death in the final scene of the movie. I had written how he had been spurned by his estranged daughter, after briefly reuniting, and spurned likewise by his love-interest Marisa Tomei (a stripper stage-named “Cassidy” whose real name is Pam) and decides that his fate is in the hands of the crowds who fill VFW halls and high school gymnasiums to see him. He is always a crowd favorite and has universal respect among them and his peers in this bizarre entertainment world.
My computer keys were humming along and describing the utter bleakness that my friend and I felt, and I had been pondering the comment by my friend, “Was this a missed opportunity? Am I getting too conventional, or am I always looking for something redemptive in a film?” (Or words to that effect…it had been a long day for me.) I had written these 1001 words all to say that the two people driving the plot – the protagonist and the writer – had chosen death. Randy the Ram chose his death by going into the ring for a rematch against his nemesis of twenty years earlier despite having nearly died from a heart attack and bypass surgery. And the writer chose to have him die. No redemption there, as far as I could see. The absolute bleakness of the ending blinded me. The last sentence I wrote before signing off and going to bed, was:
And the writer let Randy do that.
The “that” being Randy’s choice to do the match and especially performing the “Ram Jam” off the top rope, a dive he is known for that he does in slow motion, when the screen goes to black.
At 4:00, I had an epiphany.
The writer let Randy do that.
I had often heard writers, writing teachers, and critics discuss how a fiction writer needs to let their characters have a certain amount of autonomy. In fact, Anne Lamott writes about how she doesn’t always know where her character is going to take the plot. And so, in realizing that Robert D. Siegel as screenwriter had let Randy the Ram do the Ram Jam, that Siegel had let him get so consumed by his grief over the shunning by his daughter and the temporary spurning by Pam, that he pushed himself effectively to his own death, I realized that Siegel was playing God. And it was beautiful. Then I started to see the redemption.
God lets the characters in the meta-narrative of human history – Adam, Eve, King David, Jonah, Judas…Lucifer/Satan – choose what path they want to walk. Even Jesus, God’s son, had to choose at Gethsemane what path he would walk. Siegel let Randy choose. So I saw redemption in that truth alone.
That started cracking open the interior of the movie.
About two-thirds of the way through, Randy is in a particularly gnarly wrestling match with a scrawny guy who likes “the hard-core stuff” in the ring. So after Randy gets egged on by the crowd to strike his opponent with an audience member’s prosthetic leg – “USE HIS LEG!!! USE HIS LEG!!!” they chant in unison – he goes back into the ring to get staple-gunned by his opponent on the chest and back, carried up a ladder only to fall off into razor wire, and generally turn the ring into a place of slaughter.
In the locker room, after the staples have been removed, a two-inch gash in his right side sewn up, he is alone. Randy stumbles toward the lockers, his back covered in holes, his long hair sweat-drenched. He is still a mess. He pukes, and falls, and the screen goes black.
You realize, looking back, after you allow for Siegel to play a divine role as screenwriter, that Randy had been crucified in that ring. The razor wire was the 40 lashes, the staples were the nails that pierced him, the walk up the ladder was the road to Golgotha. He even had the spear-like gash in the side. Just before that scene, in the strip club, “Cassidy” had asked Randy if he had seen “The Passion of the Christ” and remarked how “they threw everything at him.” She quotes Scripture – remarkably well – and then jokes that Randy is “the sacrificial Ram.”
When Randy the Ram wakes up in the hospital room after collapsing in the locker room, you realize he has been reborn, or resurrected. He learns he cannot wrestle anymore because of his heart, so he quits the sport and gets a job in the deli section of a supermarket as “Robin” (his real name, which he hates). He reestablishes a relationship temporarily with his daughter and tries to start one with Pam. What has happened is that Randy the Ram– the “sacrificial Ram” – has saved Robin through his ring-crucifixion, and now Robin (though he still goes by Randy) tries to live out a normal life. His daughter ultimately rejects him because he misses an important commitment to her. Pam at first warms to him and then rejects him, yet later she walks off the stage during a performance and drives to the venue where Randy is doing what might be his last performance. She pleads with him backstage to not do the match; his heart can’t handle it. She pledges that she is in his life now. He rejects her and goes into the ring, now sacrificing himself for the adulation of the crowd.
So what happened to the redemption? My opinion is that Robin turns out to be a Judas figure – betraying a Christ figure of sorts, yes, but more than that, killing himself in his grief over loss and sin. In the biblical account, Peter also betrayed Jesus, but he repented, so in his sorrow, he was restored. Judas went and hanged himself, so in his sorrow he was lost. Robin turns back into Randy, wraps himself once again in his self-absorption, his solipsism, and therefore is lost at the end.
But Pam is saved. She comes out from her old life, so far as we know, for the director’s choice of lighting effect on her face in her final performance shows her utterly disgusted with herself and the conditions around her, when earlier she was portrayed in a luxuriant and ideal glow. Randy, as Robin, had made overtures of commitment to her, and his sincere affection pulled her out of her destructive lifestyle. If it had not been for Randy’s “crucifixion,” Pam would not have been reached out to by the resurrected Robin. By his wounds, she was healed.
I realize that the role-analogies break down at certain points, but this much is true: Randy’s “death” in the ring saved Pam. And Siegel’s writing allowed it all to happen.