A Sickness of the Heart: On The Wrestler

The Wrestler (2008) | Fox Searchlight Pictures
Fox Searchlight Pictures

A father and daughter dance in the ruins of the New Jersey boardwalk. For years, they’ve been estranged; here begins the neglectful father’s abortive attempt to make amends. Their long separation explains in part why there’s little familial resemblance between them. A motor vocabulary is as heritable as an accent, and they haven’t had time to learn one another’s movements and mannerisms. Nor do their complexions match: hers is the pale palette of one left too long in shadow; his the bronze and bleach of a body that once enjoyed a place in the sun and remembers life under bright lights.

If visible markers of heredity hold any value, it’s for telling at a glance who shares the same DNA. If the eye roams in search of such similarities, it finds connections not between father and daughter, but between foreground and background. The man’s skin tones match the peeling paint of the columns—warm colors, smoldering with memories of better days—and at the thought, one starts to see ruins in our hero (though not yet our hero in ruins). He turns from a face to a body in breakdown: creases where skin too often wrung has lost its pliancy; eyeshadow bruises from injuries unable to heal like they used to; a hearing aid for ears that no longer listen; a pacemaker scar, glimpsed in earlier scenes, beneath the point of his collar. “I’m an old broken-down piece of meat,” he’ll say in the exchange to come. It lays bare the first ingredient in his tragedy: he is not a man in decline, but in decay.

The narrative arc of The Wrestler is a Rocky in reverse. There’s no uphill climb to glory here, no underdog fighting his way through the ranks to challenge the reigning champion. The Wrestler gives us a man whose great battles are behind him. His visions of returning to the top mix memory and desire, a destructive fantasy that confuses the days spent with the days to come. The effort to reclaim what’s been lost at first appears to be a prayer that the future will be like the past: that the unknown will bear some resemblance to the familiar and comfortable. Freud in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” calls this instinct “a tendency innate in living organic matter impelling it towards the reinstatement of an earlier condition.” Yet the earliest state for all living beings is the lifeless, undifferentiated substance from which they sprang. Taken to its logical conclusion, the retreat into the past is more than a concession to death—it’s the pursuit thereof. (Freud dubs this the “death drive.”) Clawing after lost time is perilous: when the past is preferable to any possible future, the organism is already dead. What refuses to renew is doomed to rot.

It’s worth remembering that “nostalgia”—our term for yearning after the past—comes from a Greek word meaning “pain.” Before it was an aesthetic (think Stranger Things) or an industry (picture the interminable train of sequels and reboots), it was a disease. Nostalgia referred to a sickness of the heart in the most metaphorical sense: a species of homesickness wherein itinerant warriors longed for inaccessible places and times. It is no accident that the film’s final scene, in which our hero struggles through a rematch of his most famous fight, has him clutching the scar over his heart. Past and future seldom intersect painlessly.

Yet The Wrestler is less about nostalgia than its cruelty—namely, the lie that there remains a place to return to as time passes. All who privilege the past take a denialist, conservative turn, perpetuating the myth that what is past is somehow timeless. Honeyed with memory, it feigns immunity to change, pretending to perfection in the intervening years. But time never preserves; it only lays waste. The sole mercy it offers is to do its destructive work in intervals too subtle to detect as one endures them. The backdrop of urban decay in The Wrestler serves as a grim reminder that there’s no untouched past to regain or revisit. What’s there is ruin, and chasing after it exacts a ruinous price: the neglect of days to come in the name of days gone by.

In this instant of father and daughter hand-in-hand, the tableau is less a danse macabre than a danse moribonde. The celebration—or resignation—depicted in those medieval carvings is absent, for here the participants do not know their destination. The end of the path remains out of sight, out of mind. For now, taking in the shared smile that marks the pair’s one commonality, we’re granted at least one joy: the momentary delight that sends boats beating against the current, all to bear back ceaselessly into the past.