Darren Aronofsky‘s 2008 film The Wrestler, released ten years ago today, has my favorite ending of all time because we, the audience, are not around to see it end.
The beautiful thing about film is that it’s a brief window into another world. We airdrop into these characters’ lives for two-ish hours and then we’re booted back out again, leaving them alone to live, and die, and eat, and fuck, and whatever it is they do without us gawking at them through the screen. When a movie feels truly alive, you know that the story goes on after the credits roll, even if you’re not allowed to see it. I love endings, live for a great movie ending, which is hard in a time when major movies don’t want to end. In a Marvel-dominated pop culture economy it so often feels like you’re watching an extended preview for the next thing, where even the end-credits are interrupted with promises of more story down the road. (The biggest movie of the year, Avengers: Infinity War, is half a story.) This is fine, events are fun, and I love a good superhero flick as much as the next dweeb. But on the film’s ten-year anniversary, I revisited The Wrestler and was reminded of the magic of a story that not only ends, but ends after the movie cuts to black.
The ending: Randy “The Ram” Robinson—played in an Oscar-nominated performance by a Mickey Rourke constructed 100% from belt-leather and anabolic steroids—is a washed-up former pro-wrestling superstar making small-time appearances on the New Jersey indie scene in his twilight years. A doctor told him that another go in the ring could stop his struggling heart, but Randy has wasted everything he ever created outside the squared circle—his relationship with his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), his genuine friendship with a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei)—and can only return to the hundred or so fans that still chant his name.
“The only place I get hurt is out there,” Randy tells Cassidy, gesturing vaguely to life outside the ropes. “The world don’t give a shit about me. You hear them? This is where I belong. I gotta’ go.”
And go he does, for one last match with his oldest rival The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller). In the ten years since The Wrestler debuted, it’s become sort of a meme thanks to Rourke’s massive career resurgence followed up by Iron Man 2 and The Expendables, but the last 15 minutes of this movie really are a performance masterclass. Randy’s reaction to the cheering crowd is such an earnest mixture of genuine and sad, it’s like watching someone grin on the way to the gallows. He’s home, and home is gonna’ kill him. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti‘s camera floats through the match like a third wrestler, and only really settles down as Randy climbs the ropes to perform his signature move off the top, The Ram Jam, the maneuver that for all intents and purposes should be too much for his heart to take. Aronofsky sticks the camera right on the mat, so Randy leaps over us, past us…and the movie ends. Cut to credits, cue Bruce Springsteen‘s Oscar-snubbed title song. “If you’ve ever seen a one trick pony then you’ve seen me…”
Sure, you can read it as obvious that Randy died in the ring. But why? Why deprive yourself of an experience deeper than a concrete answer? You don’t have to. You can’t. What’s important is that you don’t know. What’s important is that the story of The Wrestler ended even if the life of the wrestler did not. We learned all we needed to know about the character of Randy “The Ram” Robinson during that brief window we knew him and no longer.
The Wrestler certainly didn’t invent the ambiguous ending. The Graduate crushed us with one. John Carpenter’s The Thing horrified us with another. Inception turned it into a literal game. But what hits me every single time like a sloppily performed piledriver about The Wrestler is how it frames its ending as a triumph from any angle. Randy’s landing doesn’t matter because just by jumping he proved something to himself, even if the lesson learned is a sad, lonely one. That’s why that final shot is so effective. We can never say for sure whether Randy is leaping out of his own life, but we can say for certain that he’s leaping out of ours.
And that’s beautiful. More movies should end. Not create a Universe, not round up a squad, not aim for a sequel. Just end, and trust the audience to focus on the leap from the top rope and not where you might land next.