Release Date: December 17, 2008
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
By Sean Chavel
It is that nourishing paradox where a movie is about a character on the down and out and the actor playing him uses that breakdown to create a legendary performance. Mickey Rourke, that once upon a time matinee sex idol from a movie generation past, makes the comeback of a lifetime in "The Wrestler." Rourke, as testosterone hulk Randy “The Ram” Robinson, finds severe truth in minor moments and breaks your heart in the most electrifying scenes. This is the performance of the year, perhaps, the performance of several years.
If there’s any reluctance to check this out in theaters, perhaps it’s due to – let’s be frank – you think that you might not be interested in a movie about a meathead bloodsport that is prearranged with fixed matches. This is a movie that is very aware however of the fabrication design of its backdrop. But sharing its locker room knowledge is just the start. “The Wrestler” is a prize rarity, a film that harkens back to the style of character driven '70s movies. Back to a time when movies weren’t afraid of featuring characters down on the luck and on the brink of slipping into tragedy. Randy “The Ram” is that kind of character study – a term you used to use to describe old Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby and Peter Bogdanovich films. The story examines the tipping point before The Ram is desperately close to fall into oblivion or, one hopes, has found the crucial moment elevate himself back to stable ground.
Early on with Randy in the film, he learns he has just been locked out of his trailer park home due to short funds. This appears to be somewhat residual for him. During the week he finds odd jobs, on the weekend he wrestles, and in-between, tones up at the gym, does tanning salons, and perms his long platinum hair. The scenes inside the ring show Randy taking in large heaps of abuse, and afterwards, taking in very little earnings from stadium promoters. He doesn’t complain about the money nor about the pain. Grotesque close-ups in the ring show Randy getting punctured by barb wire and a staple gun. An early bout shows Randy sneaking a shortened razor blade in the ring, and you think, Is he going to use it to slash an opponent? No, Randy while facing down on the mat slices his own forehead to gush blood – to satisfy audience bloodlust. Ouch to the extreme.
This is probably the best movie that I have ever seen on the subject of sadomasochism. Randy and his peers are pain-freaks determined to go beyond the brink to prove their superhuman strength to their fans. They train to be gladiators, but in essence, these guys will beat themselves up for applause. Randy still sees himself as a wrestling contender even following a heart attack and is dependent on a hearing aid. In following Randy’s story, however, we understand why he has committed himself to self-bludgeoning. We come to observe what a terribly lonely man Randy has become. The ring is the only place he has to binge on pride and he is nevertheless good at putting on a good show. Without the fanfare he is reduced to feelings of worthlessness.
As you can probably sense this sounds like a tough film with harsh subject matter – and graphic whacks – that might deter some of you from seeing it. You might also want to know that film spends lots of time inside a sleazy strip club (this would be an awkward first-date movie), this is Randy’s habitual hang-out. He’s drawn to a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) who is emotionally jaded yet still has sensitive beams deep within her – she reveals sweetness to Randy but warily. Randy is also trying to connect with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) who feels infinitely betrayed by her father. These actresses measure up stupendously with Rourke, both as women who would prefer not to become salvation idols for Randy.
This is the second masterpiece we have all been waiting for from director Darren Aronofsky (following “Requiem for a Dream”). The camerawork is not patterned or heavily designed this time, instead, Aronofsky uses his camera to catch raw and spontaneous moments. Aronofsky, often tracking his camera on Rourke from behind, often makes us feel like we’re angels on Randy’s shoulders while we watch him on his plight. Aronofsky’s artful way of observing self-inflicted pain and bare vulnerability is ever-apparent. If the film elicits repulsion, it’s because we come to feel every single one of Randy “The Ram’s” bruises right along with him.
In a key collaborative decision, Aronofsky allowed Rourke to improvise his own dialogue on a few occasions. Particularly in two sequences, a locker room drug acquisition and more importantly, the final bow before the stadium audience where the character lets open all of his gratitude for his fans, with how superficial love from fans was the only indisputable love he ever had. In a metaphysical triumph, Randy has let us know that he’s given it his all – and so has Rourke. It’s been nearly twenty years since Rourke made something meaningful. “The Wrestler” could and should go down as one of the great actor comebacks of all-time. Mickey Rourke, at least this year, is number one.