On The Last Image in The Wrestler (Spoiler Alert)

02/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the heaviest double feature since World Wars I and II, I saw both The Wrestler and The Reader on Sunday. (Call it my crazy need to see Oscar hopefuls.) Both films have stuck with me for various reasons, but it's The Wrestler that I really can't shake.

The very last image has especially taken root, so I'm gonna analyze it. (NOTE: This post assumes you've seen the movie, or don't mind learning how it ends.)

First, let me explain how I read the larger context of the film.

I agree with Mick LaSalle of The San Francisco Chronicle. , primarily when he notes that the movie neither romanticizes nor pities poor people... that it doesn't present them as grubby saints or desperate freaks. Instead, it demonstrates that you can be poor and still have a variety of experiences. That, you know, you can still be human.

And that might seem obvious, but think about how many movies simplify poverty into a symbol: Titanic practically bleeds to prove that the folks in steerage are more virtuous than nasty Billy Zane in his sparkly cufflinks, while Deliverance is a metaphor for the danger of straying below the middle class. Either way, the poor don't get to be people.

But in The Wrestler, director Darren Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel refuse to reduce anyone. Randy "The Ram" (Mickey Rourke) gets locked out of his trailer, but he also has some genuine fun at his deli counter job and the kids in his trailer park love him. Pam (the stripper played by Marisa Tomei) hates her dead-end career, but she also knows how to find good clothes in a thrift store and is shown being a considerate mother.

This approach to poverty indicates the film's overall complexity: Time and again, it finds contradictions in supposedly cut-and-dry situations.

The final image crystallizes that outlook. We know going in that Randy could be killing himself by wrestling his comeback match against the Ayatollah, and we know he's fleeing to the mat because he can't face his failure as a father or his fear of being with Pam. We also hear his stuttering, post-bypass heartbeat as he moves around the ring. Clearly, he's on the edge of death.

But here's the thing: We don't see Randy die. I thought we would, Million Dollar Baby-style. I thought we'd seem him die and then get to feel oceans of pity for the broke, broken-down bastard who wasted his life trying to recapture old glory.

Instead, the last image asks us to notice what else is going on during the wrestling match. Along with the Ram's scary heartbeat, for instance, we hear the roar of a worshiping crowd and the Ayatollah's gentle support. We realize Randy isn't just escaping reality when he wrestles: He's also finding legitimate acceptance on terms he understands.

But does that mean we should just be happy for him? No. His mistakes are no less severe because he feels loved in the wrestling ring. But conversely, his joy is no less real because he has problems. Both parts of his life are equally true. Poverty and dignity, happiness and sadness, liberation and fear -- all these things can exist together.

Which brings me (at last) to the final image: As though we're laying on our backs, we see the Ram leaping over us, performing his famous "Ram Slam." In silence, he sails across the screen, arms outstretched, and then the credits roll.

The image implies several things at once: On one hand, Randy could be leaping to his death... pushing his body to its final breaking point. On the other, he's flying. He's in the air, liberated by a wrestling move.

How absolutely accurate: Any moment in our life could be wonderful or terrible. It just depends on how we see it while it's flying overhead.