As I mentioned yesterday in my review of Up in the Air, awards season is weird in the ways it can influence how you view movies. I went back and glanced through a bunch of reviews for Darren Aronofsky‘s The Wrestler just now, and all anyone could talk about at the time was leading actor Mickey Rourke. Rourke is brilliant, Rourke’s career mirrors that of his character, Rourke makes a triumphant comeback, Rourke will win the Oscar, Rourke this, Rourke that. When it was time for me to sit down and watch the film, it became impossible to separate Rourke’s performance from the movie. And Rourke was brilliant, so the movie was brilliant too. I called it my favorite film of 2008 at the time.
While my adoration for the film is dampened a little bit as I watch it for a second time, my appreciation for Rourke’s performance is anything but. He plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler who was a big star in the 80s, selling out Madison Square Garden. That was a long time ago, though. Now he’s old and washed up, his body’s broken down and he’s wrestling in small gyms in front of crowds barely scratching triple digits. The money from his heydays is long gone. He lives alone in a trailer, takes odd jobs where he can find them and spends his free time at the local strip club. He seems to enjoy doing what he does and takes things in stride, but when a health issue suddenly pops up and doctors tell him it’s time to retire lest he risks permanent injury or death, he’s forced to reevaluate his life. If he can’t fill his life with wrestling, he doesn’t want to be alone anymore. One particular stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) seems a possibility for a romantic relationship, and there’s also his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) who he tries to get back in touch with after having neglected her during most of her life.
There are certainly similarities between the careers of Mickey Rourke and Randy The Ram, but focusing on that too much is to do a disservice to what a transformative performance this is. This is one of those turns where the actor fully becomes the character. We’re not seeing Mickey Rourke in this film. We’re seeing The Ram from the word go, as he sits quietly in a dressing room preparing for a match, as he marches to the ring basking in the crowd’s approval, as he puts his body through immense physical punishment because it’s all he knows and all he wants to do. The only time when Rourke shines through and I become aware that he’s acting is during an emotional talk with his daughter, but that is one brief scene and the illusion is soon restored. This is the actor’s finest performance to date that I’ve seen.
When you look past said performance, you find a fairly straight-forward and familiar story. The estranged daughter is a character and subplot we’ve seen many times before, and stripper Cassidy isn’t far removed from your standard hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (Tomei still puts in a great performance, I should point out). Their presence here makes sense, as many old pro wrestling stars can attest too (for more on the subject, check out Barry W. Blaustein‘s fascinating documentary Beyond the Mat), but we still know who these characters are and what role they’ll play in Randy’s story from when we first see them. While The Wrestler is more of a character study than a plot-driven drama, I would still have liked something a bit more fresh underneath the no doubt unique facade of a serious wrestling film.
This was Aronofsky’s fourth feature film. His first three (Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain) were heavily stylized and harrowing mindscrews. The Wrestler is thus a radical departure from his signature style, as he instead wisely opts for a realistic tone more suited for the material. There’s more of a hands-off approach at work here, just shooting to see how a scene goes with no storyboarding to map things out. The result is a markedly different film from Aronofsky’s usual fare. His next film Black Swan would see a return to his normal style, but The Wrestler stands as testament to his versatility as a director. He can make great movies in different ways. If you didn’t know it was him, you’d have a hard time guessing that this film is the work of the man who made the vibrant thread-twisting The Fountain.
But just because the film is somewhat austere in its tone and visuals doesn’t mean the emotions are. As familiar as the plot may be, it’s still a very gripping tale being told. Mickey Rourke is indeed the film. His haggard face tells the whole story, both when he struggles to form bonds with the people around him and when he’s going through physical anguish in the ring. Had he not done such a teriffic job, the whole movie could have ended up a slight footnote in Aronofsky’s filmography. But Rourke is game here, and it’s only a shame that he hasn’t shown the same fire since.