MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
To discuss what I take to be the most profound message of The Wrestler, I'll bring in another one of my all-time favorites, Rocky IV. I've spent a lot of time over the last week sitting on couches and doing mindless work with various movies in the background, including Rocky I-IV. The repetition that runs through III and IV is pretty amazing, and audacious: the same closing scene in all of them, the same precursor to the main event (a key character dying). But that's neither here nor there.
Rocky IV centers on two stories: the nihilism and suffering of Apollo Creed, and the triumphant suffering of Rocky Balboa. Rocky does what he always does, which is to take a beating in order to overcome the bad guy, to prove to himself that he's not scared, that he's not a bum. But Apollo Creed's reasons are a little darker. Beyond the money or the prestige, Apollo recognizes that he is, at his core, a fighter, and that, "when you're in the ring, the people love you, but as soon as you're gone, they forget all about you." In other words, for Apollo to be Apollo--for Apollo to exist, he must be the one fighting and the one suffering. There is no Apollo that is not a suffering Apollo.
And so, as Creed enters the ring one last time to take on Ivan Drago, it's with no small sense of irony. Creed dances and shakes his way into the ring against a superior opponent, backed by James Brown and a glowing appreciation of America, knowing full well that this is not the real Apollo--the one who plays for the crowds and dances and smiles. The real Apollo is the one that the crowd can scarcely watch--the one about to suffer and be killed.
Rocky, by contrast, holds his suffering at a distance. He views fighting as something he's good at, something he does to prove to himself that he can. In other words, he suffers not because it is who he is, but because through the suffering in the ring, Rocky knows that he doesn't need it, and can walk away from it.
Enter The Wrestler. The Wrestler is the movie that would be made if Apollo Creed were the star of the Rocky films. The film tells the story of two figures, Randy "the Ram" Robinson and Cassidy, two figures who make their living with their bodies, but whose bodies are failing them. Randy is twenty years past his prime, still wrestling on the weekends in a succession of bloodier and bloodier matches that do little but batter his body and prolong his disgrace and agony.
But ironically, it is only int he ring that Randy finds his life. After a heart attack and doctor's orders to never wrestle again, Randy reunites with his long-lost nemesis for one more main event. This is complicated by his blossoming relationship with Cassidy, who comes to him to return his affections, just as Randy is about to walk down the ramp one more time. In the face of true love, Randy hears the yawning crowds and declares, "The only place I get hurt is out there. The world don't give a shit about me."
And much like Creed, Randy walks out to Guns N' Roses in a moment of total irony: the crowd sing his praises so long as he spills his blood and sacrifices himself. As Randy makes his grand speech to the crowd, he looks up to the runway and sees that Cassidy is not waiting. There is no grand reunion; there is no second chance. During the fight, Randy feels his heart grab, and keeps going, climbing the turnbuckle to the crowd's applause, and jumps off into silence as the movie ends.
Whereas in Rocky, suffering is kept at a distance, something a person can hold at arms' length or engage in for other reasons, in The Wrestler, there is no illusion that suffering is part of the deal, not to be avoided. They know that what they are doing will kill them, that in the end, their lives are lived only as suffering ones, those devoured by the crowd. For The Wrestler, there is no happy ending: Cassidy is Rocky, holding suffering at a distance, while Apollo gets the center stage at last, dying as he has lived--a demonstration that in order to gain everything that one loves, one has to lose it all.