As I write this, yesterday was one of the best days of my life. I got to be the Best Man at the wedding of my best friend, of my brother from another mother. I wouldn’t have swapped that for anything in the world. To think of betraying him, to think of stabbing him in the back or, worse, to brutally assault him, makes me nauseous. I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that. I imagine many reading these words are likely to feel the same way.
That is why, having just finished watching the latest episode of WWE Chronicle, that documents Dean Ambrose’s journey from the night of his return on the Monday Night Raw (MNR) ahead of Summerslam 2018 through to the days and weeks after he did, to his brother, all of the things I couldn’t imagine doing, I felt compelled to take a look at what the documentary tells us about its titular subject.
WWE Chronicle: Dean Ambrose is a compelling watch, one you should absolutely make the time to experience. It’s in-universe capture of Ambrose’s unravelling and ever-more fractious psyche from the day of his uplifting return to the ring to the days on the road following his fratricidal act as he is confronted by throngs of confused and angry fans literally worldwide – an irony of a situation in itself – should have any humanist fan glued to the screen.
From the opening moments, that see Ambrose immediately dressing down the producers of the show in an impassioned tirade chastising them for what he believes to be their efforts to entrap him into saying what they think would make good television, the anxious tension that has underpinned Ambrose’s months back in WWE is palpable. Coverage of Ambrose’s perceived mentality has been extensive over the years, but the image he cuts throughout Chronicle is not of a lunatic as much as it is a ticking time bomb, one with the agency to decide whether or not to go off but lacking the clarity of thought to know whether or not it really wants to.
Brilliantly, it helps to both clarify and further confuse the motivations behind Ambrose’s decision to turn on fellow Shield brother Seth Rollins the night their third brother, Roman Reigns, had to begin an indefinite leave of absence to battle cancer. As we witness Ambrose bulldoze his way through the chaotic days of the international tour that followed his beat-down of the Kingslayer, his moral and emotional turmoil seemingly cannibalising himself from the inside out, only one fact emerges from the murk of a deeply upsetting situation: in spite of his actions, Ambrose still thinks of Rollins as family.
Casting aside criticism of his decision to betray Rollins the night they dedicated their MNR Tag Team Championship victory to Reigns – “We won the match, didn’t we?” Ambrose spits in violently-minded protest when pressed on the matter – the Fringe demands of the viewer whether or not they think it’s easy to betray and beat-down his family, his brothers.
As one might expect with a figure of the complexity of Dean Ambrose, then, as he provides answers only further questions are presented.
By the time the film concludes, Ambrose promising that he never apologises for anything before the documentary falls into an emphatic silence that will echo around the room of any fan transfixed by this remarkable story, we know that Ambrose’s point of view has remained remarkably consistent – his opinions of his brother haven’t changed, only his previous reticence not to act on his resentful impulses, the pull of which have seemingly festered into something irresistible over the months he has spent away from the ring.
That change of heart is gradual, recorded in the subtext of everything the Fringe says and does when the cameras are on him. Ambrose speaks throughout Chronicle with a tone of fatalism, constantly questioning whether or not the next appearance of The Shield would be their last. He is keen to remind that you never know when something might end, and promisingly – or should that be worryingly? – he at one stage wonders aloud if the next appearance of The Shield should be their last. His shifting position feels as inexorable as it is heart-aching to see.
All of the turmoil we have seen play out with Ambrose across the last two months is recast as a result: when Ambrose turned on Rollins, he wasn’t overcome with conflict, but had instead simply decided to act on an impulse that had been burning in him for some time. Though never stated explicitly, implicit in the film is that the loss of his self-proclaimed ‘road wife’ in Reigns was a catalyst more than it was a cause on that emotive episode of WWE’s flagship.
The cause itself remains largely a mystery, perhaps even to the perpetrator. It may be that Ambrose is unwilling to provide clear answers for his actions to Rollins and the fans because he feels none are owed, but so too may it be because he isn’t exactly sure what they are himself. Beyond anything else, Chronicle is the recording of confusion, of conflict, of complexity; not so much an insight into how Ambrose thinks, but into how much he can feel.
It is no puzzle as to how that might overwhelm a man and, indeed, Chronicle ultimately defines Dean Ambrose as a man for whom life is an overwhelming experience.
It would be a lie to state that his portrait isn’t one with more than a little entitlement dotted among the colours – to hear him talk of his burdens, of how nobody can understand what it’s like to be him is to reasonably assume he believes himself to be the only person to have ever suffered a hard life. It is a typical contradiction in terms from the Fringe, who goes to great lengths to remind others offhand of the hard unkindness of the world before allowing himself to wallow in exactly that.
The man who opens Chronicle with a staunch and impassioned defence of his integrity in small matters ends it as a man who, were he capable of adequately processing his tsunami of emotions, might be justifiably labelled a hypocrite. It is an Ambrose who mocks others for crying over injustices done to them, apparently forgetting the years-long crusade he engaged in doing just that in times past.
The WWE Network is home to innumerable not dissimilar documentaries that capture the lives of those who inhabit its universe, most of which span a considerable amount of time. What amazes about WWE Chronicle: Dean Ambrose is that it covers little more than a matter of weeks, but to witness Ambrose’s mental state dissolve into the kind of chaos he hates the world for manifesting would be to think otherwise. It is a testament to how much an unchanging man can change when the dial of his moral compass falls out of alignment with the poles of his decency.
It is, all-in-all, an anxiety inducing experience to watch, deeply uncomfortable but entirely necessary at the same time. Walls of noise feel irritably enraging in their apparent relentlessness, be it the army of crickets occupying Ambrose’s home, the piercing winds and crunching dirt of a barren desert or the shell-shocked ringing in the man’s ears as he silently rages through backstage interviews surrounded by people he can’t understand. The sharp and explosive actions of Ambrose when he flies into one of any number of unpredictable rages feel invasively intimidating – particularly in one telling moment the night he refused to explain his actions to a retributive Rollins, shoving the camera away after flinching upon hearing Rollins’ music hit in the near-distance. His monologues as he tries and seemingly fails to make sense of his feelings, even of his actions are more intimately revealing about the Fringe as anything we’ve seen from him before, and you will find yourself hanging on every word uttered by the film’s chosen subject, trying as hard as the man is himself to make sense of what’s going through his body, his mind and, most importantly of all, his soul.
Though this exercise will prove fruitless, the experience will bring you closer to knowing what it is to see the world through Ambrose’s senses and instincts as any other interview, match or documentary ever has. That makes it must-see viewing, that commits to video library the birth of what already promises to be one of WWE’s most compelling villains, ever.
Only one clear conclusion will present itself to you by the end, but it is one that fundamentally shifts our understanding of the man: Ambrose lives his life walking on the knife-edge that is not the fringe of lunacy, but rather the fringe of amorality.
WWE Chronicle: Dean Ambrose is currently available to view on demand on the WWE Network, and strongly recommended.