Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke delivers a performance for the ages as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a broken down, washed up professional wrestler on his last legs. His own weathered face makes him look more like a scarred fighter than even the best makeup job could have faked. Once the most popular wrestler around, Randy gets by in local underground matches in that futile chase for a nostalgic thrill.

In these weekend romps, director Darren Aronofsky peels back the curtain on professional wrestling. Yes, the fights are rigged, but the fighting is real. Before the matches the two wrestlers work out how they're going to beat each other, almost like some barbaric dance. In the middle of a fight, The Ram surreptitiously sneaks a razor and cuts his own forehead so it looks like the other guy got in a great hit. It's all about the show.

Offstage, the wrestlers form a tight fraternity, applauding their brethren for a good show and generally supporting each other. Even among these surprisingly kind men, Randy stands out as genteel; the younger men look up to him as an idol, and his genuine compliments seem to be worth as much to them as the roar of the audience.

But as with all great sports films, the point is not the game. As soon as he agrees to a rematch of his famed bout with arch-rival "The Ayatollah," Randy suffers a heart attack, dashing any hopes of a comeback. His coronary inspires him to try to reconnect with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who wants absolutely nothing to do with the man who was never in her life. In his free time he goes to the strip club and hits on dancer Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who is gorgeous but — I presume because she's not in her 20s — never seems to have any customers other than Randy. Randy never does get it through his thick skull that Cassidy is, like him, a performer.

Randy's attempt to win over the two women in his life showcase Mickey Rourke's emotional range. When he hit the scene in the 80s he gained a name for himself as someone who could play tough guys with a lot of heart, and he's lost none of that ability to let his tenderness bleed through that battered exterior. When he breaks down trying to if not win the love of his daughter at least rid her of her hatred, I wondered if it was Stephanie fighting back tears or Evan herself.

The ending is about as beautiful as it could be, precisely because it does not pander to us. He spends the whole film trying to win the love of his daughter and his stripper friend, but it is when Randy climbs the ropes to deliver the killing blow to his old "foe" that we see the only people who truly love him.

This is a career-defining role for Rourke, who makes up for a near 15 year absence from the spotlight with his performance here. "He could have been the next DeNiro," so many point out; indeed, Rourke costarred with the legendary actor in "Angel Heart," yet people only praise Rourke when the film is mentioned. His Randy Robinson certainly has echoes of DeNiro's Jake LaMotta; both had so much and ended up with so little, even if Randy's life was never as seedy as Jake's.

This is a big departure for Darren Aronofsky. His previous films were jarring and disorienting, particularly "Pi" and "Requiem for a Dream." In those films, the camera displayed the movie as the characters might view it; the paranoid, migraine prone Max of "Pi" and the various drug addicts of "Requiem" would see things in a jumpy fashion. "The Wrestler" operates in the same fashion, but this time we see things through the cold sobriety of a man who knows his fate and accepts it. No wonder, then, that we feel a rush of elation only when the camera enters a wrestling arena.


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