Watching The Wrestler in a small arthouse cinema in Cork was one of the most memorable movie-going experiences of my life. As a die-hard wrestling fan growing up, it was great to see someone showcase the reality of life as a professional wrestler, outside of the glitz of WWE. Life is hard and gritty for someone in this profession, and Aronofsky's film captured that hardship perfectly.
For me, the fact that it's about wrestling is only half the reason why I hold this film in such high regard. The other reason is the near perfect structure that the film embodies. It sets up a problem for the protagonist - Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, a poverty-stricken wrestler. The first act climaxes with Randy having a heart attack and sets up the second, where the real story comes into play. You see, the film isn't really about a pro-wrestler, it's about a man who put his career before his family and must now adapt to putting his family first again.
The climax of act 2 shows Randy once again choose his old way of life over his daughter who has finally taken a chance and let him back into her life. She rejects him once and for all for this betrayal, and the third act features our protagonist deciding whether or not he should return to his wrestling lifestyle or try again.
We are often taught in screenwriting circles that a character should change by the end of their story. And a common response to that is, 'sometimes characters don't change'. That's true. But I think a more interesting way of approaching a story is to think about how the character can change if given the opportunity.
It's not about whether they change or not, because in The Wrestler, our protagonist doesn't change. However, he is given the chance to do so. And that's the point of the story. Right before he leaves for what will be his final wrestling match, a deflated and worn out Randy 'The Ram' is approached by his friend and one time love interest, Marisa Tomei, and given an opportunity to stay - not in so many words but it is implied. Later, at the show, he's approached by her yet again to show that she is supporting him and to remind him that he isn't alone and there is still time to have the life he wants - again, not in so many words, but heavily implied. He has two opportunities here to drop everything and return to the ones who care about him. A chance to save his own life. He refuses.
This tragic ending works, not because he fell off the wagon of sorts, but because he had people willing to help him back on. In that regard, it's a highly successful ending to what is already a very bleak but quietly hopeful story about love and redemption.
(Image copyright: Fox Searchlight Pictures)