, 109 min, 2008
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Robert D. Siegel
Stars: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is an astonishingly powerful, utterly absorbing and deeply moving drama, a specific portrait of a life – the life of a professional wrestler.
Mickey Rourke stars (and yes, that is the unequivocal word for it) as Randy “The Ram” Robinson (or Robin Raminsky as was his original moniker), a down-and-out ex-80s superstar of hardcore wrestling on the East Coast who now spends his days working in the stock room at a suburban supermarket and his nights taking part in violent, disgusting matches in high school gymnasiums and union halls. Randy is old but tough, enduring the demeaning existence of a minimum wage hire while trying to make his rent; early in the film he is locked out of his trailer because he can’t pay his rent due to his last match not paying as much as he was expecting. What’s a former star to do but sleep in his van in the cold New Jersey snow?
When he’s not working, Randy frequents a local strip joint and cultivates a growing crush on an aging stripper called “Cassidy” (real name Pam, played by Marisa Tomei). She likes him, but she has “a line” that she does not cross with customers. His intentions seem honorable and sincere enough considering her line of work, but she’s having none of that, despite what her gut may be telling her.
What little plot there is kicks in when, after a particularly brutal match, Randy suffers “another heart attack” and is implored by his doctor to quit wrestling. He begrudgingly agrees at first, and, at Cassidy’s suggestion, even seeks out his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), now a vaguely Goth and dramatic college student who has age-old resentments and wounds that the sudden reappearance of her father can only reopen, rather than repair.
Darren Aronofsky is the one-time wunderkind of the Sundance scene, having previously made the cult classic cyberpunk thriller Pi (1998) and the visually stunning, grunge-infested addict drama Requiem for a Dream (2000; my favorite film that year). He took a break for a while, attempting and finally succeeding to bring the perplexing and visually gorgeous sci-fi epic The Fountain (2006) to the screen with Hugh Jackman and Aronofsky’s paramour Rachel Weisz, to critical and audience indifference and loathing.
This film is a comeback of sorts for Aronofsky then, but it’s unlike any of those previous films. Gone is the gritty homemade quality of his debut film, as well as the hip hop-influenced hyperkinetic flash of his sophomore effort. With this film, Aronofsky works for the first time with cinematographer Maryse Alberti (Happiness, Velvet Goldmine), who has a background shooting documentaries mostly (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Crumb, Taxi to the Dark Side, No End in Sight). Using a grainy handheld camera, the results are gritty and utterly realistic.
Gone too are the sensationalistic effects of Aronofsky’s previous oeuvre. Here, the biggest special effect is Rourke who, we gather, does much of his own wrestling – or at least appears to. This is actually perhaps Aronofsky’s most easily watchable and accessible film to date because despite the brutality of the three or four wrestling scenes, it is totally spellbinding – you can’t avert your eyes.
A confession: I grew up as a fan of professional wrestling (back when WWE was WWF and before a wild-life foundation claimed the acronym for itself) and I was hardly ever subjected to wrestling this intense, harsh and just plain violent! Aronofsky, working from a gripping original screenplay by Robert Siegel, gets all of the physical details right – we see locker room negotiations between fellow wrestlers, talking it through, discussing strategems and verbally rehearsing the layout of their matches beforehand. The wrestlers, old and new alike, seem to get along and even party together after long nights at “work.” Early on, when Randy is “supposed to” get cut, we see he’s removed a razor from under his wrist tape and cuts himself while down, away from the prying eyes of the audience as his “opponent” keeps them distracted with his antics.
Mickey Rourke’s performance is something of a miracle, an astonishing revelation, a comeback that is long past-due (despite the slight resurgence after back-to-back triumphs in Sin City and Domino a few years back), a harking back to his glory days (Barfly, Angel Heart, 9 1/2 Weeks). Like Randy, Rourke hasn’t just disappeared, but has been out of the limelight for 20 some-odd years and has a hunger to regain his former prestige.
His Randy is an amazing creation, a showcase in which all of Rourke’s best and worst qualities are on display: his humor and warmth, as well as his rabid anger and capacity for bad boy antics; this is a raw, undiluted portrait. Tomei nearly matches him with somewhat lesser material; her Cassidy is scarcely less complex, but her performance is more subtle. How these two wounded birds find each other in this garbage dump of a modern world is utterly spellbinding, and profoundly moving.
The film finds its heart, however, in Randy’s struggle to adjust to “retired” life and when it goes wrong, it just plain snowballs. He is a wrestler; what else was he gonna do? By the time Cassidy is on his wavelength, he’s long gone and it’s actually too late; Rocky and Adrian this ain’t. How Siegel and Aronofsky choose to end their film I’ll leave you to discover, but let me just say that upon reflection it feels true and right; you know the ending reality would dictate, and so much do you come to care for Randy that you hope to all that is sacred that you’re wrong. I challenge you not to have goosebumps and tears during the final moments of this film.
Aronofsky has crafted a living, breathing, richly detailed, utterly convincing portrait of a specific existence; the term “slice of life” is apt – this cuts to the bone. This is one of the year’s best films.