Love It or Hate It, mother! (2017) is the Most Important Major Studio Release of the Year

Darren Aronofsky’s latest go-for-broke provocation, mother!, has already been in wide release for two full weekends, an eternity in the context of internet time. Its already slight box office returns are dwindling; the hot takes have cooled; film culture is desperate to move onto discussing the next big budget comic book adaptation or (I’m not kidding) half-a-year-early rounds of Oscar predictions, already framing mother! discussions in the rearview. It’s been a fun couple of weeks of wildly varied reactions to this aggressively divided work, though. From the rapturous praise to the horror stories of angry, vocal walkouts during the film’s violently bonkers third act, mother! demands discussion & analysis in the way crowdpleaser comedies, superhero action epics, and computer-animated cartoons about talking animals typically don’t. Even the Swampflix crew is harshly divided on mother!‘s merits as a feature film. It’s one of my favorite new releases I’ve seen all year, but Boomer was much less impressed when he reviewed it last week, writing “It aims for the moon and misses, but it doesn’t land among the stars; it plummets back to earth as a fiery wreck, breaking up in the atmosphere and never again reaching the grounding of earth.” However, the important part of that divide is not whether we were individually positive on the film’s handling of its Biblical & environmentalist allegories or the way it makes deliberately unpleasant choices in its sound design & cinematography to get them across. The important thing is recognizing the significance of that “aim for the moon” ambition in the 2010s Hollywood filmmaking landscape. mother! may ultimately make more enemies than it does dollars during its theatrical run, but it’s the most important Major Studio release of 2017 for its ambition alone.

As Boomer wrote, “Good or bad, this one’s going to be on my mind for a while to come.” That kind of stick-with-you effect is invaluable in our disposable media landscape, which is essentially dominated by Superhero of the Week action spectacle & streaming platform “content” binging. Personally, I was much more unambiguously positive on my experience with mother! than Boomer, but just as mentally preoccupied with how it lingered with me after I left the theater. I spent most of my day after watching the film reading over every scrap of impassioned analysis I could find, positive & negative, and was happy to discover that most of the ways I had engaged with the film were already represented in the cultural conversation. I’m of the firm opinion that subtlety is highly overvalued in modern criticism, so I’m tickled that the film is fully committed to its crash course on the entirety of the Bible and (intended or not) Aronofsky’s self-flagellation over the Artist-Muse power dynamics of his own romantic partnerships, a pitch black act of self-analysis that paints the Artist type as much more of a monster than the divine role of the Biblical analogy. I’m also a huge sucker for what I call the “Party Out of Bounds” narrative, where house guests & partygoers are supernaturally compelled to remain in an obviously toxic social environment when it’s clear from frame one that they should leave immediately. On top of his indulgence in religious, environmental, and uncomfortably personal allegories, Aronofsky also uses mother! to experiment with traditional stage play surrealism. Recalling the artificial environments & darkly funny social horrors of surrealist masters like Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, and Luis Buñuel, mother! is on a very basic level a surreally menacing comedy about the horror of having guests over who will not leave, a sentiment I identify with more than I likely should admit. The exciting thing is that all of these tactics & influences have been constantly picked at like scabs over the last two weeks of cultural conversation, along with feminist readings of how its narrative mirrors classic texts like Charlotte Perkins Gilman‘s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and real life horrors like the public’s gendered abuse of Jennifer Lawrence when her nude photos leaked without her consent in 2014. The only person out there limiting the endless possible discussions of mother!’s themes & means is the one person no one should have ever asked: Darren Aronofsky.

For some ungodly reason, several interviewers have asked Aronofsky to explain the (aggressively unsubtle, already blatant) Biblical & environmentalist allegories that drive the film’s lyrical sense of narrative. It was idiotic for him to oblige. I can see how after a week of befuddled theater walkouts & wildly mixed reviews, he’d be tempted to explain himself for those confused or angered by the film, but mother! works so much better as conversation starter without the guiding hand of its creator. Following a summer where many films have (supposedly) financially died by the hands of low scores from critical aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, movie studios have been very itchy over negative criticism. Low percentages on the dreaded Tomatometer have been a hot topic for studios desperate to explain why “sure thing” releases like Baywatch & The Dark Tower died on the vine (despite, you know, the fact that they looked awful before they were ever reviewed), but what hasn’t been fully dealt with yet is how a high Tomatometer score isn’t necessarily a sign of quality or substance either. Safe, crowdpleasing films from the MCU, Star Wars, and their Disney-adjacent ilk are much likelier to secure a high Tomatometer score than an ambitious, divisive film that splits critics. We need to put more of an emphasis on celebrating aggressive artistic visions that divide opinion and spark contentious conversation. mother!‘s 61% on the Tomatometer means so much more to me than a 90+% approval for safer bet releases like The Big Sick or Spider-Man: Homecoming (both of which we also reviewed positively, mind you). Just because 98% of critics had some degree of a positive reaction to Kumail Nanjiani’s heartfelt, post-Apatow romcom doesn’t mean the film has lingered in their minds the way mother!’s “aim for the moon” ambitions will. Aronofsky would benefit greatly from abstaining from damage control interviews on that critical divisiveness, encouraging people to remain split on his thematic intent & aggressive filmmaking craft. mother!‘s middling Tomatometer score should be a badge of honor for the director, even more so than its already infamous F CinemaScore (which it shares with similarly genius works like The Box & Bug).

mother!‘s thematic complexity, critical divisiveness, and conversation-sparking ambition make it an exciting work to engage with, but they aren’t the reason why the film is culturally important. There were plenty of films released domestically this year I would categorize as just as ambitious & thematically rich as Aronofsky’s work: We Are the Flesh, The Lure, Your Name., Good Time, Get OutRawKuso, etc. What makes Aronofsky’s film important in the context of these admirable go-for-broke works is that it was released & supported by a Major Hollywood Studio. In fact, Paramount Pictures has been infinitely better than Aronofsky himself in handling the negative press over the anger & confusion his film has inspired. In addition to prominently quoting the negative reviews in its advertising, they’ve issued the following statement: “This movie is very audacious and brave. You are talking about a director at the top of his game and an actress at the top of her game. They made a movie that was intended to be bold. […] We don’t want all movies to be safe. And it’s okay if some people don’t like it.” Fuck yeah. In the current cinematic climate, there aren’t nearly enough major player Hollywood studios taking chances like this. Young, promising directors are being snatched up for movie-by-committee superhero pictures before they’re even given a chance to find their own voice (a fate Aronofsky narrowly escaped himself). The most invincibly successful film franchise in the world, Star Wars, is afraid to take risks with directors like Phil Lord & Chris Miller, replacing them with well-behaved, personality-free workmen like Ron Howard at the last possible minute (when that’s who they should have hired in the first place if they just wanted more of the same). Nearly every major release feels like it’s tied to a pre-existing property with a built-in audience, banking on familiarity to coast by as a mild delight. Paramount’s defiant embrace of mother!‘s critical & financial doom is a huge deal. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, Kubrick films like The Shining & 2001: A Space Odyssey (which were heatedly divisive in their time as well) being released in our current don’t-rock-the-boat climate where every movie has to sell billions worldwide & please 90% of its audience to be considered a success. Paramount daring to release mother! in its current, artistically unmitigated form to such a wide audience and then standing by that decision in the face of critical backlash is a modern movie industry miracle.

Last year, Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise similarly applied Buñuelian sentiments to a “Party Out of Bounds” story turned apocalyptically violent in a blatant allegory about the evils of modern consumerism. It’s a great film and just as worthy of a descendant of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel as mother!, but it barely played in theaters before being quietly dumped on Netflix & promptly forgotten. By contrast, mother! is a tonally, visually, and thematically challenging work domestically released almost as wide as a typical by-the-books romcom or superhero action flick (which, again, we generally enjoy as well). That’s an increasingly rare occurrence in the 2010s. Whether you’re as enraptured with its audacity as I am or as conflicted over its allegorical buffoonery as Boomer was, you have to recognize mother!‘s value as a Major Studio risk. I sadly doubt it will change the industry in any significant way, but it’s still a damn important agenda statement from a Major Studio system player, who somehow handled this false crisis of critical division even better than the artist they were supporting.

-Brandon Ledet

mother! (2017)

In the words of the Grand Galactic Inquisitor: “That was a weird one!”

For years, I woke up every morning (and the occasional afternoon), rolled over, and put my feet firmly on the floor in front of a poster for Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. The Fountain was not a movie that I liked when I first saw it, nor was Black Swan. Over time, however, I came to love The Fountain in spite (or perhaps because) of its bizarre but ultimately human melding of pretentious universalism and cloying sentimentality. Even in my first viewing in the theater, I still loved the visuals of the film, especially the depictions of space as a vast sea of colors and reactions, which were actually taken from microphotography. And I guess I’ve come around some on Black Swan as well, although I doubt I’ll ever come to love it. All of this is to say that opinions can and do change. Sometimes I look back and can’t believe I gave Tenebrae anything less than a perfect 5 Stars. And 4 Stars for last year’s Ghostbusters? What was I smoking? In order to be fair, despite the fact that I walked out of the theater after seeing mother! and immediately wanted to pen my review, I decided to ruminate on it for a few days to see if my feelings about the movie changed at all.

And, hey, they did! The more time that passes, the less I like it. I better get this down on paper while I still have some positivity. And maybe while I still have some negativity as well. Good or bad, this one’s going to be on my mind for a while to come, and I get the feeling it’s going to go up and down.

On my Fountain poster, there was a pull-quote from film critic Glenn Kenny: “As deeply felt as it is imagined.” This is essentially true of all of Aronofsky’s films that I’ve seen (of his recent work, I’ve only missed Noah and The Wrestler): they are all films with a great depth of imagination and arresting visuals, paired with emotional gravitas that varies wildly but usually works because of strong performances by powerhouses like Barbara Hershey, Ellen Burstyn, and, for all that people love to mock her, Natalie Portman. It doesn’t really apply in the case of mother!, however. This is a cast full of powerful performers, from Javier Bardem to Jennifer Lawrence to Ed Harris and (my ride or die) Michelle Pfeiffer, but even their presence makes for a film that lacks the emotional resonance that it’s shooting for; it aims for the moon and misses, but it doesn’t land among the stars, it plummets back to earth as a fiery wreck, breaking up in the atmosphere and never again reaching the grounding of earth.

Although I went into this film as blind as I possibly could, avoiding all pre-release interviews and clickbait, I don’t foresee being able to fully discuss this film without going into the major plot elements and my interpretation of the events of the narrative. This is going to be a spoiler-heavy review, so abandon ship now all ye who wish to view the film with fresh eyes and clear hearts. This plot summary may not vary far from others you may have already seen, but I intend to only note things I plan to discuss. Ok? Let’s go.

The film opens on Javier Bardem’s character “Him” placing a crystal with a fiery center in a podium, which causes a burned home to regenerate, including the appearance of Jennifer Lawrence’s character, “mother.” She is working on restoring a glorious octagonal Victorian house to its former glory after a fire: plastering walls, repainting, and generally doing all of the heavy lifting while Bardem’s writer character, whom we later learn is a poet, sits in his study (which contains the crystal from the opening scene) and struggles with his writer’s block. One day “the man” (Harris) appears, supposedly after having been told that their home was a bed and breakfast. The poet welcomes him into the house over Lawrence’s character’s protests, and the two men spend the night drinking and carousing. The next morning, mother awakens to find herself alone before stumbling upon her husband helping the man, now with a wound where his back ribs are, to vomit in a commode. This prompts the appearance of “the woman” (Pfeiffer), the man’s wife, who slinks about making innuendo and asking invasive questions about how often the (ostensibly) younger couple have sex, do they love each other, and, of course, when is Lawrence’s character just going to have a baby already?

They reveal that they are actually fans of the poet’s work, and Pfeffer’s character finally manages to find her way into his inner sanctum, accidentally breaking the crystal and driving the poet into a rage; he boards up his study. As the homeowners prepare to kick the interlopers out of their house, the latter’s two sons (Domnhall Gleeson as the elder and Brian Gleeson as the younger) arrive and bicker about their inheritance, leading to a physical altercation that results in the younger son’s death. This leads into an influx of a seemingly endless multitude of mourners into the house, who invade and act out, from childishly mocking Lawrence’s character for trying to preserve the sanctity of her bedroom to aggressively trying to sleep with her and using misogynistic slurs to ultimately breaking a sink and flooding the room. This finally prompts her to drive all of the uninvited guests out. Afterwards, she and the poet make love. She awakes the next morning and declares that she is pregnant. This delights her husband and breaks through the wall of his creative block, and he writes something new, something truly beautiful and transcendent (not that the audience gets to read it; we only see how people react). That’s when shit truly hits the fan.

Near the end of her pregnancy, the new work is published, to Lawrence’s character’s surprise, and their home is immediately descended upon by fans, who begin to besiege the house in the form of a mob. In a matter of minutes, they make their way into the house and begin to destroy it, repeating the poet’s declaration that all that lies within is to be shared. Violence erupts, as well as various rituals and rites that smack of religiosity and sectarianism, until their home becomes a war zone, complete with women being imprisoned, the poet’s publisher (Kristen Wiig) performing violent executions, refugees hiding in barracks, and explosions in every direction. The mother and her husband make their way to his boarded-up study, where she gives birth but refuses to let the poet take the baby out into the rest of the house; when she finally falls asleep, she awakes in a panic and rushes from the room to find that Bardem’s character is presenting their child to the assembled throng of his fans, who steal the baby.

Then they kill it. Then they eat it. (Then hundreds of people in dozens of cinemas in America stood up and left the theater. To address the elephant in the room, it was pretty gruesomely laid open, and I’m not shocked that middle America revolted at this… revolting display. I’m sure that they would say that I am too desensitized to this kind of thing based on my previous viewing habits–including La terza madre, which features a similar scene of infant cannibalism–but really it’s that I’m an adult who knows when a prop is just a prop. The disturbing shit is happening out there in the streets in the real world right now, and if you happen to be one of those people who found this beyond reprehensible but don’t have a thing to say in defense of the victim when children like Trayvon Martin are getting murdered in the real world, then you’re the one whose brain is fucked up. Get your priorities and your house in order. But I digress.)

This (baby eating) drives Lawrence’s character around the bend. She attacks some followers and is badly beaten by them in retaliation. She ultimately makes her way to the basement, where she succeeds in setting the house ablaze and killing everyone inside, save for the poet. He finds her burned body and asks her to make one last sacrifice on his behalf: she allows him to remove her heart, which he cracks like a nut or an egg to reveal another crystal identical to the one at the start of the film. He again places the crystal in its place, and the house begins to rejuvenate once more….

I’m embarrassed to say that the primary and most obvious metaphor of the film did not reveal itself to me during my first watch. As someone well versed with the Western Canon, the reinterpretation and revisitation of Biblical sources is as familiar to me as the smell of my childhood home or the shape of the tree outside my bedroom window. I was careful (and lucky) to avoid promotional materials, which meant that Aronofsky’s public declarations about the films allegorical intent were unknown to me until after the fact. Still, in retrospect it should have been obvious to me that the poet was meant to be God, that Harris and Pfeiffer’s characters were Adam and Eve, that their sons were Cain and Abel, that the broken sink was the great deluge, that Lawrence’s character’s child was Jesus, especially as the mass of fanatics ate of his flesh and experienced a kind of religious ecstasy. Aronofsky has also stated that the considered the title character to be representative of the earth, which is taken for granted by mankind, a group which in turn tears the world apart in the name of warring faiths and factionalism, until the earth turns on its guests and burns everything down. Also, I’m pretty sure Wiig is supposed to be the Catholic Church in this paradigm. But Roland Barthes and I are over here in the corner and we want you to know: the Author is dead, baby, dead, and you’re not beholden to what he has to say.

I read the film not as a mostly one-to-one allegorical fable about the rise and fall of mankind, but as being instead about the God Complex of the author, the artist who is so self-absorbed with their personal vision that they allow themselves to reach the point of total narcissism and personal deification, an apotheosis of the self. To me, this read true in the scenes in which we see Bardem’s character repeatedly surrender his privacy, the sanctity of his personal relationships, and even his own child to appease the reader and the audience. It made me think of the way that so many writers, myself included, stripmine their lives for story material, consciously and unconsciously. I wasn’t expecting Adam and Eve so I didn’t notice them when they arrived, and was more fascinated with wondering whether or not Aronofsky knew how unbearable the author (and thus he himself) seemed to be, based on the lens of my reading.

As chaos descends in the final act, I found myself looking for other ways to interpret the material, and thought that we were headed for a kind of H.P. Lovecraft’s Rosemary’s Baby scenario. There’s certainly enough textual evidence for the idea that the house is in reality an eldritch horror show under all the floorboards and the plaster, with the image of a beating, fleshy thing behind the walls and a Cronenbergian bladder/ulcer/boil/appendage (?) sticking out of the plumbing. There’s also a very Lovecraftian element to the way that the interior of the house descends into a Gilliamesque war zone that’s evocative of the indecipherable and incomprehensible chaos of films like Jacob’s Ladder and In the Mouth of Madness. I was rooting for this potential turn right up until the child was born and it was totally normal-looking (other than being ten months old like most movie “newborns”). My hopes that the film was going to transcend into something truly bizarre were dashed.

But if we instead take Aronofsky at his word, then everything is so obviously (and clumsily) literal that we’re left struggling to grasp the meaning of the more obtuse symbols that appear in the film? Take, for instance, the importance of Harris’s character’s lighter. This “Adam” smokes, much to “mother’s” chagrin; if she is Mother Earth, is she upset by the pollution of her perfect home, caused by self-destructiveness, and this is the reason for her ill temperament? If we accept this premise for the sake of argument, what are we to make of the fact that she deliberately loses the lighter–is this the earth hiding man’s self-destruction from him, and is the fact that Harris’s character later lights a cigarette on the stove despite having no lighter a metaphor for how mankind will continues to be self-destructive regardless of nature’s attempts to course correct? If we grant that these precepts are sine qua non of the thesis that man/Adam/mankind abuses the hospitality/household/habitability of mother/earth/Mother-Earth and that this is what ultimately leads to the destruction of the house/planet, we are still left with questions. Why does the lighter have a Nordic rune on it (it’s called a Wendehorn; you can also see it on the woman’s luggage clasps)? When the metaphorical first man arrives bearing fire, are we really supposed to draw no connection to the myth of Prometheus? Given that Promethean fire most often metaphorically stands for technology, is it mankind’s technical aptitude that mother despises, and if so, what does the fact that she uses this fire/technology/self-destruction to burn down the house mean? Is it that polluting the earth causes climate change and thus the ultimate death-by-heat of humanity?

Is it really just that one layer? Is it really so obvious and dumb? Or is it a matryoshka, with multiple obfuscated layers of meaning but also somehow just as dumb?

And what of “Cain” and “Abel”? Primogeniture, inheritance, and birthright are common narrative devices of the Judaic biblical canon, ranging from Jacob and Esau to Isaac and Ishmael to Joseph and his brothers, but those aren’t elements of the story of Adam and Eve’s eldest sons, whose altercation was the result of Cain making the wrong kind of pre-Messianic sacrifice in comparison to Abel’s proper profferation of his prettiest sheep (no, seriously, look it up). Fraternal jealousy is a hallmark of this tradition, but Cain and Abel competed for the affections of their creator, not their father. As such, one would think that there would be some interaction between either of the brothers and the poet before the slaying, but if there was it was too fast or subtle to be perceptible. Again, there’s so much (one could say too much) effort put into creating a one-to-one correlation between events in the film and Judaic myth that when that synchronization falls out of step, it highlights the shoddiness of the overall metaphor.

Which is to say: I think there may be a great movie in mother!, despite its flaws being as deeply felt as they are imagined. It just needed two or three more drafts before it could reach that potential. And if this film has taught us anything, it’s that writers who think they are gods, as well as gods who envision themselves as writers, don’t spend nearly enough time working out the kinks.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Marks & Smarks: No Holds Barred (1989) & The Wrestler (2008)


Definitions pulled from Wikipedia’s glossary of professional wrestling terms:
-“Mark”: a wrestling fan who enthusiastically believes that professional wrestling is not staged.
-“Smark”: a fan who is aware of and interested in the backstage and non-scripted aspects of wrestling; a portmanteau of “smart” and “mark.”

Last night I attended my first live pro wrestling event, a months-long goal fulfilled. Despite the distinctly tame vibe of the crowd, I decided to misbehave. Couldn’t help myself. I got drunk, cheered for heels like a jerk, and shouted things that disturbed the 10 year old boy sitting in the row ahead of me. A few rows behind me, another ten year old was also yelling ridiculous taunts, but his were much funnier & more insightful than mine. I was thoroughly upstaged. Around a third my age, this kid had a preternatural comprehension of the sport that he thankfully shared with the neighboring crowd in short, high-pitched bursts. The kid ahead of me would be genuinely upset if he were in earshot. I know I upset him myself. I was sandwiched between a young mark and a smark, two different wrestling worlds clashing on either side of me.

I think it helps to appreciate both sides of the coin to experience the full potential of pro wrestling. Losing yourself in the characters & the soap opera drama is just as important as the in-the-ring athleticism. The violence wouldn’t mean as much without the camp. On the other hand, the context of the practical, behind-the-scenes operations of the sport gives deeper meaning to the in-the-ring storylines. It’s a scripted sport, but scripted in the style of reality television: the reality & the fiction are inseparable. One feeds off the other. A well-rounded fan needs a solid admiration of both.

Searching for this balance in pro wrestling cinema leads me to the bookends of the modern wrestling movie. 1989’s Hulk Hogan vehicle No Holds Barred perfectly captures the nature of mark mentality in the infancy of the current Vince McMahon era. 2008’s The Wrestler, by comparison, is a smark’s dream: an authentic look at the brutal truths of pro wrestling as a career. Together, help paint a complete picture, the fiction & the reality, one feeding off the other.

No Holds Barred (1989)
Although No Holds Barred was far from the world’s first pro wrestling picture, it was the first film produced by the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE). It would take over a decade after its release for Vince McMahon’s juggernaut wrestling promotion to form its own movie studio, so in this way No Holds Barred was ahead of its time. This was the only way it was ahead of its time. Miming the late-80s Schwarzenegger action movie format as much as the budget would allow, No Holds Barred was a blatant attempt to launch the movie career of Hulk Hogan, who had already dominated the “sports entertainment” world and was looking for his next conquest. The first sounds you hear in the film are the voices of Jesse “The Body” Ventura & “Mean” Gene Okerlund, who had come to define the era’s ringside announcing. The film’s head villain is character actor Kurt Fuller testing an almost exact prototype of his career-defining role as a television network scumbag in Wayne’s World. No Holds Barred is in every way a product of its time.

Keeping in line with the 1989 perspective of pro wrestling, before the internet’s obsessive nitpicking of the sport, No Holds Barred is firmly on the mark side of the mark/smark divide. Hulk Hogan’s character Rip Thomas is a superhuman beast in the ring and out. He leaps to incredible heights, destroys cars with his bare hands, and dismantles “bad guys” to an 80s “rock music” soundtrack, all while wearing a costume befitting of a superhero biker. In a world devoid of subtext he is a hero without flaw, an incredibly smart brute who’s dedicated to his charity work, the kind of guy who inspires lines like “Rip’s word is his bond” even when he’s not in the room. The entire movie exists to make Hulk Hogan look impossibly good. He’s a saint, a “good guy”.

Objectively, the movie is not very good. In fact, it’s awful. There’s some guilty pleasure to be found in its campy action movie spectacle, like when Rip force-feeds a rejected bribe to Kurt Fuller’s television executive and quips “I won’t be around when this check clears.” It’s also funny to think that Vince McMahon produced a film that indicts the evil nature of megalomaniac network executives, because, well, he’s a megalomaniac network executive. For the most part, though, the movie is shoddily made of generic kids’ stuff: jokes about “dookie” and slobbering hillbillies, world-class mean-mugging from immense muscle men, “good guys” beating up “bad guys”. It’s a movie you have to love for its savage idiocy, not in spite of it.

More importantly, it’s a document of a different time, a swan song for the era of the mark.

The Wrestler (2008)
A drastically different approach, Daren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is an objectively good movie. I’d even go as far as to call it a masterpiece. Applying the modern online smark mentality to pro wrestling, Aronofsky turns the backstage repercussions of sports entertainment into a Greek tragedy. Unlike Hogan’s Rip Thomas, Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a real human being outside the ring. Well past his glory days, Randy struggles with health, finances, and personal relationships badly damaged from years spent on the road. In-the-ring injuries have increasingly severe real life consequences. In one particularly gruesome scene medics remove staples, glass, etc. from Randy’s skin as the camera cuts back to show how they got buried there in a horrific hardcore match, a bloodthirsty crowd chanting “You sick fuck!” in the background. As the pain periodically hits him throughout the film, the intense sound design cues you in with high-pitched noises to match his wincing. Referring to himself, Randy “The Ram” says “I’m a broken down piece of meat. And I’m alone. And I deserve to be alone.” Time proves him right. This is far from the marked-out world of Rip Thomas.

Aronofsky’s attention to authenticity is a remarkable achievement here. As I said before in my list of top pro wrestling documentaries, Randy “The Ram” feels like wrestlers we know, wrestlers like Scott Hall & Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Smarks would take particular interest in the way the movie depicts wrestlers planning spots before matches, laying out a basic framework within which they can improvise. The movie also addresses blading/juicing, steroid abuse, boozy bouts of self-medication after matches, shady promoters and minuscule pay. Randy directly refutes claims that wrestling is “fake” and shows off his scars as proof. Part of why it hurts to watch him despair over the old action figures, Nintendo games, and 80s monster ballads that serve as relics of his former fame is that it feels all too real. There are people who live like this.

Of course, an accurate portrayal of pro wrestling is seated somewhere between these two extremes, just as I was seated between two wildly different children last night. Without the glam showmanship, juvenile humor or outrageous superheroics of Rip Thomas, Aronofsky’s version of wrestling is a grim, lethal ordeal. The wrestling of No Holds Barred is an idealistic child’s macho fantasy. From The Wrestler’s viewpoint, it’s more like assisted suicide. To take in the full scope of the bizarre, idiosyncratic, self-contradicting superhero spectacle of the brutal sport, you have to appreciate both perspectives. You have to look through the eyes of the mark and the smark. Drunken yelling also helps.

-Brandon Ledet