By Jeff Goins, Editor
I just saw The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke, on DVD the other night. I had heard interesting things about it, so I thought that it’d be worth the rental. It was not what I expected; however, I still can’t decide if it was worth watching or not. It brings to mind the question of whether or not Christians should engage their own culture and to what extent. Moreover, it raises the responsibility of the Church to redeem the world’s message of despair, transforming it into one of hope.
The Wrestler is a story of a washed-up, professional wrestler (played by Mickey Rourke) who is still riding on the coattails of his cultish fame from the late 1980s as Randy the “Ram” Robinson (famous for his oft-chanted “ram jam” move).
The film ridicules professional wrestling, highlighting the wrestlers’ vanity, pre-scripted moves in the ring, and obsession with their own physique and failing careers. It even reminds the viewer of Rourke’s own life and profession as an amateur and professional boxer (and of course, his later profession as an actor). As one reviewer wrote, “Rourke is Randy,” complete with tears shed over past failures and subtle smile during his moment of triumph in the final scene of The Wrestler (Wilkinson, Christianity Today).
With the majority of scenes set in the local strip club and bloody wrestling ring, there were plenty of reasons for one to turn his or her head in repulsion. My wife closed her eyes during a few grotesque wrestling stunts including barbed wire and glass, and we fast-forwarded through a fairly gratuitous sex/drug scene.
I’m not a prude, and I don’t abstain from all R-rated movies, but this one was tough to watch. I expected something along the lines of a wrestling version of Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby or maybe even naively hoping for something resembling the family-friendly, comeback flick The Rookie (starring Dennis Quaid as a middle-aged, Major League rookie). While this movie had semi-redemptive elements, such as Randy’s efforts to make amends with his estranged daughter Stephanie (played by Evan Rachel Wood), it was, overall, a depressing storyline. Any sort of hope for a normal life that was raised was ultimately crushed by the reality of Randy’s circumstances and lifestyle, exposing the self-destructive subculture of semi-professional wrestling.
This low-budget film from the same makers of Requiem for a Dream (a pretty dark movie in itself) pushed the moral limits of an edgy film, but nonetheless left me pondering what it all means. While I can’t recommend The Wrestler to other Christians, I can’t deny its implicit lesson – that some stories simply cannot be redeemed… at least not in this life.
Towards the end of the film, Randy’s daughter is screaming at him, telling him that he will never lead a productive, hope-filled life (actually, she calls him a “perpetual f*ck-up”), and I have to admit that she’s right. Randy ends up disappointing us; he doesn’t come through, not as a dad and not as a worthwhile contributor to society. Stories like this are hard, because we know they’re true; we know that some tales don’t seem to get resolved as we’d like. And that’s where we who follow Jesus are compelled to find a message of hope in one that seems to be filled with hopelessness.
The truth of The Wrestler (and of life) is that all things don’t end well, and this is the story we don’t want to hear. We want to believe that if we try hard enough and believe strongly enough that good things do work out for us. While I personally prefer tales of messy redemption, this one still rings true. Sin has consequences, life is painful, and we can’t always fix the messes we’ve wrought. After all, without sounding trite, that’s why we need a Savior.
This is what Ram’s character symbolizes – he is not the triumphant, resurrected Christ we read about in Revelation or in the final Gospel chapters of the Bible. He is, as another reviewer states, “the Ram, not Jesus, not Isaac” – the sacrifice that judgment of our unrighteousness demands. In the end, he is abandoned, with “no one to live for, so he can only die for the people,” as the sacrificial lamb in the Old Testament rite was slaughtered (Plate, Religion Dispatches). In a time when deep theology is often overlooked, movies like The Wrestler remind us of the need for propitiation, that sin must be atoned for and justice must be satisfied.
So, what will it be – will the Church just disdain such despairing messages? Or, will we seek to redeem them for Christ and his kingdom, not necessarily embracing the world’s message, but neither dismissing it?
Jeff graduated from Illinois College, a small liberal arts school, with a degree in Spanish and Religion. He lives in Nashville, TN with his wife Ashley. He works for Adventures in Missions, edits this silly little magazine, and loves to do new things. Check out his blog: Pilgrimage of the Heart.