The Wrestler

For months the talk has been about how The Wrestler has resurrected the career of Mickey Rourke. The faded former star has won plaudits and awards for his performance as Randy Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s unassuming epic about a washed-up wrestler looking for one last day of glory. Rourke, once the poster boy for celebrity casualty, is the hot tip for the Best Actor Oscar next month.

But the film is a comeback of sorts for the director too. Aronofsky’s early films; the paranoid freak-out Pi and drug-opera Requiem For A Dream, labelled him as a daring visionary, a conceptual genius with a hyperkinetic eye. The abject failure of his third film The Fountain, which had a big budget and even bigger ideas, caused his career to stall. The Wrestler restores his reputation as one of the best American directors working today.

We first meet Randy “The Ram” Robinson as he sits slumped in a chair in a corner of a room. His back is to the camera, his shoulders heaving. It’s an archetypal sports-movie shot, a still moment of exhaustion after superhuman effort. Then, we realise the chair Randy is perched on is far too small for his meaty frame. There are finger paintings on the wall. It’s a kindergarten, co-opted as a changing room for a small-time wrestling exhibition in the next-door school gym.

Randy was a big star once, but that once was twenty years ago. He was a big draw in the professional wrestling game, an American hero in a peculiarly American sport, grappling the bad guys in choreographed, pre-ordained bouts on television every weekend. He made some money but he lost it all to a divorce and, the film hints, drugs and booze. Now, well past his prime, Randy is still pounding the canvas in gyms and halls on the amateur circuit, punishing his body for a cut of the takings on the door.

In between these increasingly bloody and prolonged matches, Aronofsky delivers a straight edged, emotionally complicated drama about loss and redemption. The director reins in his more elaborate visual tendencies, allowing the actors, not the camera or the editing, to communicate emotion. The same realism extends to the concrete halls, trailer parks and windblown New Jersey streets that Aronofsky employs as a backdrop. These are half-forgotten places, as run-down and obsolete as the characters.

After an incident that lands him in the hospital, Randy looks to reconcile with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). She has grown up without him and hates him for it. When the girl rebuffs his clumsy attempts at a reunion, Randy asks his only friend, a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), to help him make a connection. She is a thirty-something mother of one, who like Randy, keeps doing what she has always done because she doesn’t know what else to do. They are both performers, experts at faking something the viewer wants to believe is real; sex and violence. The Wrestler is about what happens when the audience stop responding.

Then, a chink of light. Randy is offered a lucrative rematch against an old foe at a big-time reunion tour. He puts in extra hours at his supermarket job to pay for the steroids, fake tan and hair dye he uses to look his best but it might be one fight too much for his failing body.

The Wrestler is a poignant and perceptive film with an extraordinary central performance from Rourke; tender and tough, quiet and full of rage. Randy is a once-in-a-lifetime role for the actor and he knows it. Under Aronofsky’s unobtrusive direction, Rourke rediscovers the force and nervy charm that made him a star in the first place. The result is a masterful assembly of hundreds of tiny moments of authentic expression that combine into something unforgettable.

Spring hasn’t yet sprung but in The Wrestler and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, we might have already seen the best films of 2009.


squire23 said...

A great film with an amazing performance by Rouke & great diurection by Aronofsky as usual. My only gripe with the hype around this film is not the praise or the paludits it's recieveing, it's the seemingly complete unwillinginess by any critic or reviewer to credit Rouke's performance in Sin City a few years back as his real break-though back onto the scene. Why has everyone so suddenly forgot his towering performance in that? Because it wasn't a conventional-type film. Or probably becuase of the DGA's disdain for Rodriguez after the whole shared-director's debacle of Sin City.

Either way, Rouke is back on fine form & it's great to see a guy beat the system that helped so willingly to bring him down in the 1st place.

Great film. Go see it.

clom said...

I couldn't disagree more about Sin City. It's a complete mess, Rourke's turn can barely be even considered a performance. And he's not alone.

Not that it's his fault, he's entirely straitjacketed by Rodriguez' self-regarding direction and Miller's appalling writing.

In my view a film needs to do more than look good in order to actually be good. I'd also take issue with your contention that Sin City isn't conventional. It's monotonously and repetitively conventional in terms of trotting out a series of hackneyed noirish poses without ever offering the slightest hint that anyone involved in the movie were thinking "Cool! S&M Hookers with swastika shurikens! OMG! It totally looks like a comic".

Ok, i'm ranting, and probably being a little unfair but I really really hated Sin City, largely because it promised so much and completely failed.

John said...

I'd go along with Clom on this one - Sin City isn't up to much. Rourke certainly has the look of Marv but the movie has none of the panache of the comic books. It's just pastiche. Rourke turned up in Domino, Spun and Man on Fire too, all around 2002-2003, and nobody gives a hoot about those movies either. Wrestler works, at least in part, because the actor and the character meld into one. They share the same desire to keep on plugging away regardless.

allen mez said...

Bull's eye. Nice job.