“The Wrestler” is kind of a cross between “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” in that it deals with a man looking to continue making a name for himself long after his five minutes of fame, and who seems to be more at home in the ring than outside of it. Darren Aronofsky films this movie with a rough edge, and he doesn’t hide away from the harsh reality Randy “The Ram” Robinson, played by Mickey Rourke, and the rest of the characters inhabit. It also marks another in a long line of movies with characters hanging on by a little thread to their financial existence.
After one of his more vicious fights involving staple guns and barbed wire among other things (there is no flinching on the details here), Randy suffers a serious heart attack and later finds himself waking up in a hospital bed after an emergency bypass surgery. The doctor tells him that to wrestle again will kill him, and he is forced into retirement and ends up finding work at the deli counter of a local supermarket for whatever hours he can get. Despite his fame and the attention he gets in his trailer park home from the kids who live there, Randy’s life is a lonely one, and he has practically no close personal connections to lean on.
What goes on from there might seem predictable, but this is not your typical redemption story with everything turning rosy at the end. As his mortality looms over him heavily, Randy tries to get closer to those around him with limited success. Marisa Tomei gives a great performance here as Cassidy, a stripper who is very friendly to Randy while working at her club. Like Randy, she is also past her prime in her profession, and she doesn’t draw the big numbers like she used to. The two of them are relics of the 80’s, and their happiest days have been trapped in that time which was brought to an end by the advent of Kurt Cobain and Grunge which all but vanquished the days of long haired heavy metal icons. Ironically, as perfect as they seem together, it is their individual professions which keep them apart. The rules they are sworn to follow are also the ones they struggle with, and in the end these rules define who they are.
Years after her Oscar win for “My Cousin Vinny,” Marisa Tomei remains of the more vastly underrated actresses working today. Since her win, she has given great performances in movies like “In the Bedroom” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” She continues to make leaps forward as an actress, and yet she remains at the fringes of fame. Perhaps she feels more comfortable doing independent films as they give her the best roles. All the same, part of me wishes she would get more respect because it doesn’t feel like she ever gets enough of it.
Evan Rachel Wood also co-stars as Randy’s long estranged daughter, Stephanie. They share some of the movie’s most emotionally raw and poignant moments together as Randy tries desperately to salvage any sort of connection he may have left with Stephanie. They share a nice walk together at the New Jersey shoreline where they reminisce about memories long gone, and Randy apologizes for not being there for her at all. Wood’s role is largely a reactive one, and she meets Rourke every step of the way when onscreen with him. Long after her emotionally searing performance in “Thirteen,” she is still not afraid of delving into the raw emotions held on to by the characters she plays.
Aronofsky is still best known for the mother of all anti-drug movies, “Requiem for a Dream” which was filmed with so many extreme camera moves and quick edits to where we were left with whiplash as we exited the theater. “The Wrestler,” however, does not have any of those flourishes. Instead, Aronofsky shoots the movie in a simple hand-held fashion and in 16mm to capture the rough and tumble realm these wrestlers exist in, and he makes you feel all the devastating hits, cuts and bruises these men are made to endure in the ring and when they are thrown outside of it as well. Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Aronofsky makes you experience the movie instead of just watching it passively.
I also loved how Aronofsky captured the camaraderie between these fellow wrestlers when they get together. We see them sharing the moves they will use with one another, and they always have the outcome figured out long in advance. We see the doctors attend to all the inflicted, let alone self-inflicted cuts, they get in the ring, and he makes you feel all the cuts which have long since torn away at their once perfect bodies. Aronofsky has never done things the clean way, and his work in “The Wrestler” continues this tradition unapologetically.
“The Wrestler” is not Aronofsky’s best movie (“Requiem for a Dream” still holds that title), but it is further proof of how he is one of the most exciting filmmakers working in this day and age. Some may have lost sight of this with “The Fountain,” but they shouldn’t after watching this. But in the end, this movie is really all about Rourke and how he and Randy interweave with one another to where you cannot tell if he is just acting or if he is just being the character.
Rourke makes you feel his character’s pain, both physical and emotional, throughout the movie. There is never a moment in this film where he fakes an emotion, and this is a performance coming straight from the heart. With his heartbreaking confession to his daughter, he takes what could have been a clichéd scene and fills it with pure emotion. It’s almost like he the actor is apologizing for not being better as an actor, and for squandering his potential with a lot of crap movies. Rourke has earned my forgiveness ever since he played Marv in “Sin City,” and his performance in “The Wrestler” completes what is a well-deserved comeback.
For those of you who have read my review of Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” you’ll remember how I talked about how certain parts need an actor whose face and body show a rough and tumble history, and that they have suffered through life’s most intense challenges. Rourke is not the pretty boy he used to be, but this makes him perfect for this role other than the fact he can still be a brilliant actor. Rourke sells the fact his character has a massive heart attack and that his body has been badly beaten (Rourke did briefly take up boxing when his acting career was almost gone). He sells how Randy now wears a hearing aid and glasses to read most things given to him. He also sells the fact he is deserving of another chance as a lead actor, and he knows he better not screw things up this time around.
“The Wrestler” is one of the most exhilarating and exhausting character pieces I have seen in some time. The movie is nothing short of a great triumph for its lead actor and its director, and it is topped off by a great theme song from Bruce Springsteen himself (who else could have done it?). In 2008, it was hard to think of another performance which could have been even more brilliant than Heath Ledger’s in “The Dark Knight,” but Rourke manages to top him here, and that was no easy feat.