Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Todd Barry, Mark Margolis, Judah Friedlander
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Robert Siegel
Two great thrills for the movie buff are herein. 1) Witnessing the perfect synergy between actor and character, when the real blends with the reel and the voyeuristic pleasure of witnessing a real person accessing darker parts of their soul for our entertainment. 2) Watching a visionary, visually intense director switch into making a near-genre piece on which they are able to impose their own style and filmmaking values, e.g. David Lynch with The Straight Story.
The Wrestler provides this through both an astounding, physical and committed performance by Mickey Rourke, allowing his audience to understand the parallels between himself and his character and to look clean into his soul and empathise/sympathise with his pain. Then we have Aronofsky, coming off the challenging, often beautiful The Fountain, who employs Cassavetes-esque neo-realist filmmaking techniques in telling a relatively straightforward story. It should be a sports movie, but it falls more into becoming a theatre film, an exploration of art and performance and the overwhelming need to achieve. In that sense, it falls more in line with Pi and oddly The Fountain, the latter in our watching of Rourke’s Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson fighting to remain a star, obsessively seeking acceptance and love in comparison to the obsession of Hugh Jackman’s character in the real-world portions of the film when he is fighting obsessively for something he loves.
The film ostensibly follows the life of pro-wrestler Randy, spending his time wrestling in town halls and strip clubs and unable to pay the rent on his trailer home. Randy then suffers a heart-attack after a particularly fierce hardcore bout, medically ending his career as a wrestler. After this life-altering experience, Randy switches his focus to try and pursue a romantic relationship with aging stripper Cassidy, played with grace and complexity by Marisa Tomei, and his estranged daughter Stephanie, played by Evan Rachel Wood with a great line in teenage anger and tears but little behind the façade.
Randy is an eternal entertainer, consistently looking for love and acceptance from those around him. In the film’s most joyous moments, we watch him perform for customers behind a deli counter, dishing out one-liner alongside egg salads and side of ham. The scene is indicative of so many sequences in the film when Randy is outside of the wrestling arena. During a recent interview with Aronofsky, Elvis Mitchell pointed out the ceilings and lighting often being low and encroaching, giving the sense that Randy is too big for many of the rooms in which he stands. When he is backstage before a bout, those around him ingratiate not only with their admiration for Randy as a competitor, but also with their physical size. He no longer looks hulking or out of place, which can also be attributed to his hair and general features.
Much of the brilliance of the film needs to be attributed to Rourke and Aronofsky. The script, by Robert Siegel, employs a number of basic sports movie traits and clichés, even through the driving portion of the narrative by which Randy has a major medical scare and then must re-evaluate his life, only to once more come back to the fray for one last fight. Some of the dialogue too seems straight out of the handbook but, together with Tomei, the conviction of the actors and nuance of the director mean this never gets in the way.
Marisa Tomei’s transformation of the stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold character into a complex portrait of a woman who, like Rourke, cannot give up the performing and adoration of the crowd is particularly impressive. A key difference in their thematic relationship comes during a scene in which she spends a day with him, coming to meet with in broad daylight with very little make up on yet he remain primped and proper and not too far removed from his persona. It’s a key issue for him that he is unable to separate his two lives. When at home, he plays a wrestling computer game against some kids, playing as himself. In scenes at a bar later on, he is happy to play up the wrestling persona in order to have sex with one of a number of groupies who arise. He is unable to separate his real life from his wrestling persona in the way that Tomei’s character manages to separate Cassidy, the stripper, from Pam, the mother. It’s an outstanding performance from Tomei which, along with her great turn a few years back in In the Bedroom, should put any perceptions relating to My Cousin Vinny behind her.
Rourke is though, worthy of all the plaudits. He is accessing parts of his soul that few actors can. The volatility and self-destructive nature exhibiting constantly by Randy throughout must have chimed with Rourke himself. As much as anything, it proves him amongst the finest actors America has ever produced. He was always great during his hey day in works like Diner and Angel Heart, but this is quite different. He captures heart and soul both during his time as the entertainer and wrestler, and during the quiet moments with Wood and Tomei. He is gentle and sweet but destructive and hurtful. The exchange between he and Tomei when the two argue fiercely over what kind of connection they have is painful to witness but not once does it fall beyond the realm of being believable. It’s a performance which, through capturing those quiet intimacies and the grandstanding emotional weight, could and should win him an Oscar.
Aronofsky probably won’t win anything but he really should. This is toned down ten-fold from the hyper-frenetic editing of Requiem for a Dream or from the quasi-biblical imagery of The Fountain. He is pulls back his camera, allowing the audience to just witness the character rather than be placed within the protagonist’s mind. He allows the performance from Rourke to impress from the third person, never allowing it all to become too wrapped up in providing answers as to who is right or wrong in any of the situation, or enough information to prevent the ending’s enigmatic probing. The final shot of the film is indeed his finest achievement thus far. Building to it beautifully, the final ten minutes or so become completely transcendent, moving beyond basic filmmaking to find humanity beyond the tears you will almost certainly shed. Much also must go in praise to Maryse Alberti, well-known as a documentary cinematographer who here not only shows the wrestling bouts with visceral detail, but knows and understands how to present a character and place rather than create one. It’s cinematography that, like Aronofsky’s direction, is not showy enough to win Oscars but its just the kind of subtle understanding that they should concentrate on.
While the script may not live up to the whole piece, the film remains borderline perfect for me. I would suggest that while the dialogue is somewhat corny and the narrative itself clichéd, the beats of the story work very well in creating a nice structure to the film. Nothing happens which seems out of place or overly-convoluted. Add to this the best performance from a leading actor this side of the millennium, a sterling supporting turn from Tomei, gorgeous and brutal photography from Maryse Alberti and understated direction from Aronofsky, I think you have one of the year’s most satisfying movie experiences.