Kevin's Review: The Wrestler - The Bout of the Year
by Kevin Powers
December 17, 2008
As part of the generation of raucous young WWE fans suplexing siblings in the living room, I grew to know professional wrestling pretty well. Later in life, I learned it was even crazier than I originally thought, because so much of it was for show. I won't say that it's fake, because that would be too flippant. In fact, those that participate have real bruises to prove it. In Darren Aronofsky's latest, The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke shows us just how real those wounds are and the physical and emotional toll they take. Rourke's performance is so honest, so intimate and so natural, you nearly feel like you're watching a documentary. Rourke is nothing short of incredible as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, which makes calling Rourke an actor here seem like a slight. He's doing more than just acting. Equally incredible is Aronofsky, who's quiet character study proves that The Fountain director has got some serious range.
It's no question that Rourke is a weathered, eccentric Hollywood anti-hero. What other gravely-voiced badass do you know that carts around a chihuahua? Rourke gained prominence in the '80s (with films like Rumble Fish and Pope of Greenwich Village), only to squander those achievements before dropping out of acting in the '90s to pursue a career in boxing (at 35 years old, no less). Returning to film has been a long, uphill battle for the man, but I'd venture to say he's scaled his Everest with the performance here. The Ram is such a rare fusion of person and character that it's almost impossible to tell where Rourke begins and ends. But it's not just a case of perfect casting. The depth and expanse of pain, love and hope in The Wrestler, manifested largely through Rourke's character, is something of a marvel.
The Ram is a washed-up professional wrestler who, in his older age, rations out scraps of fame collected from a high-profile career years ago. The man is tired, tortured by old injuries, and poor, but despite it all maintains a Labrador-like enthusiasm for and loyalty to wrestling. So when the chance to fight again in a rematch with one of his greatest bouts, The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller), The Ram can't say no. As the trailer-living old pro starts on his return to greatness, Aronofsky gives us a brutally honest look at what a life like this must be, from maintaining the showmanship blonde mane to the episodes of tanning and shaving to the drug use that both hurts and helps to the loneliness of the gym. The depictions have an incredible authenticity and humbleness to them. Aronofsky bolsters this through his documentary-style filming, following behind Rourke much of the time. It's a wonderfully effective technique, and gives you a real sense for The Ram's existence as you follow his routine through his sore, groaning lumber.
This atmosphere made one short scene especially touching to me - a brief moment where Aronofsky shows The Ram sleeping in his trailer, snoring heavily. In actuality, Rourke wasn't acting in this scene and the cameras just happened to be available to capture the moment. Seeing his character at a point of plain rest and stillness was truly startling, considering the constant, tortured air of the film. Though fleeting, the scene highlights the realness of Aronofsky's work and when juxtaposed against the rest of the film, gives the emotional and physical turmoils an even greater hue.
While The Ram prepares for the biggest battle of his career, he ultimately faces one that is not only unexpected but more difficult: a heart attack. This event opens up the other half of the film, which surrounds his personal relationships, both with his favorite stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), and his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Cassidy and The Ram step past their patron-performer arrangement and become something more. In the process, we're presented with yet another outstanding performance by way of Tomei. Her character is in many ways a parallel to Rourke's and even though we're not afforded the same studied look at Cassidy as we are The Ram, Tomei delivers a heartfelt, breasts-out performance that is equally stirring. Wood manages to pack a similarly moving execution into an even shorter time on screen, which helps opens up Ram's failed-father side. The scenes of Ram and Cassidy shopping for a birthday present for Stephanie provide a heady look at these relationships. The scene on the boardwalk is a remarkable one, as well.
There's just so much to like about Aronofsky's Wrestler. While small in domain, the film is miles long in feeling. From the struggle against irrelevance to the difficulty in reaching out and making amends to following one's passion, The Wrestler is a heavy-weight film that wrenches more emotional touch-points than any other this year. I doubt anyone would have thought that a film based on a profession of illusions could be so real. Rourke has won the biggest match of his career and I, for one, can't stop cheering.