The Wrestler (2008) dir. Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
Not only is Mickey Rourke’s phenomenal performance one of the comebacks of the year, so is Darren Aronofsky’s work on “The Wrestler”. After the long road to bring the muddied and overwrought “The Fountain” to the screen a couple years ago, Aronofsky’s latest film feel like a cathartic return to authentic filmmaking, free from special effects, stylistic excesses and pretentious melodrama. “The Wrestler” is as honest as films come – a beautifully executed story about a broken man struggling to make something of his life.
Mickey Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson once a king in the world of 80’s wrestling, now a middle-aged has-been struggling to make ends meets. The 20 years since his heyday haven’t been kind, his face wears all the battle scars of a life fighting, alcoholism, steroids and many other vices. He speaks with a smokers rasp, and wears a hearing aid. The wrestling meets he fights at are not televised, not performed in large stadiums, it’s the no frills independent circuit – the ‘minor leagues’, if you will, performed in high school gymnasiums and legion halls. The Ram may be old but he still has the passion and talent of a great performer. He honourably throws every ounce of sweat and blood into the ring for entertainment. Everything comes to a halt though when he suffers a heart attack after a particularly brutal match.
He’s now unable to fight, but things start looking up when The Ram makes contact with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), his grocery store job starts to pan out and a tender relationship with his stripper ladyfriend (Marisa Tomei) progresses. But when the demons of the old warrior come back Randy turns to the only thing he’s ever been good at for redemption – wrestling.
Writer Robert Seigel and director Aronofsky get the milieu of this little seen world of independent wrestling exactly right. The authenticity of these characters make it a fascinate environment just to observe. Though the entire film has a free form quality, the backstage scenes in particular sing with organic naturalism. Despite the brutality of the work, there’s warmth and respect amongst the wrestlers. So it’s easy to see why Randy never left the sport.
Mickey Rourke’s astonishing performance anchors every foot of the film. He’s in every scene, and he embodies the sad life of this man. The reunification scenes with his daughter are truly heartbreaking and the tender romance with Cassidy has us rooting for Randy to succeed and assemble the pieces of his life once and for all. But Aronofsky sustains a simmering dread and tension – a tragedy in the waiting. No matter how good things get for Randy he’s always walking a tightrope and could fall at any moment.
After suffering through the contrived melodrama of “The Reader” yesterday, “The Wrestler” is like a breath of fresh air - a deceptively simple film but the result of hard work from Seigel, Aronofsky and Rourke. As a cinemagoer, no matter if it’s “Iron Man” or “The Reader”, every time I go to the movies there’s a chance of being hit in the gonads with a film that ‘just works’ on all emotional levels. “The Wrestler” works perfectly.
It’s a shame though, just when as Aronofsky seems to have found his stride with truth and authenticity he’s going back into the high stakes artificial world of blockbuster filmmaking. “Robocop” appears to be his next project. If anything the confidence he’s received from this triumphant masterpiece will hopefully spill over into his next work. Enjoy.