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The Wrestler: Heartbreak As Real As The Battle Scars

You don’t have to be a fan of wrestling to appreciate Darren Aronofsky’s fascinating character study The Wrestler, but it couldn’t hurt. This is, to my knowledge, the first movie that treats wrestling seriously, as a sport deserving of something other than mockery. Even while staged, these men beat themselves silly, and sacrifice their bodies for the sake of the roar of the crowd. Mickey Rourke digs deep for this film, and delivers a sensational performance that could certainly stand tall next to other iconic performances in sports films—he’s the Rocky of wrestling.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke) is down on his luck. After being the most popular wrestler of the 1980s, he now does lifting for a grocery store warehouse to make some ends meet, desperately trying to pay off bills, and making time with his only friends, the kids who live near his trailer and Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), the stripper who befriends him. I won’t say what happens, but obstacles get in the way of a rematch of his most famous fight in the 1980s, and he’s forced to look death and the possibly of never wrestling again right in the eyes. He tries to get closer to Cassidy, and attempts to reconnect to his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), but in the end, he is ravaged by loneliness.

The loneliness is what kills while watching The Wrestler. Rourke conveys perfectly the meaninglessness of the handshake from someone who recognizes you, how while he’s appreciative, it does not substitute for true friendly contact. It’s evident early on that The Ram will get back into the ring (the movie is riddled with clichés), but Rourke acts the turnaround in a devastating way, and the scene immediately before he hits the ring is terrific. There are several great scenes that Rourke has—a wrestling convention with meager attendance, a video game played with a neighbor boy, and most memorably, his embrace of a job behind the counter of a deli. For a moment, the deli is his ring, and the customers his fans. However, as he finds out soon, deli work can be a cold, thankless job, and Randy can’t handle the ups and downs in his current situation.

I’d like to talk for a second about Marisa Tomei’s acting before I talk about how attractive she is. She’s a great performer who takes a clichéd role and makes it her own—the parallels between her occupation and Randy’s are sketched perfectly. A scene in which she attempts to find someone to give a lapdance to but fails to garner interest due to her age is as affecting as any of Rourke’s moments. Now I can mention how attractive she is—she’s unbelievably beautiful, and for a woman handling some high-profile nude scenes in the last couple of years, there is no starlet in her 20s that can match Tomei for sensuality and the come-hither look in her eyes that have defined moments of the last two characters she has played. Evan Rachel Wood does solid work as well… but her scenes are carried by Rourke, who we simply can’t take our eyes off of.

Aronofsky is one of America’s most valuable directors working today. Whether his ambitious films work (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) or achieve mixed results (The Fountain, a movie that is better every time you see it), the important thing is his ambitions are there. He does not let his usual stylistic flair run throughout The Wrestler—he instead adopts a documentary look that puts us ringside. The main brilliant choice he made was casting Rourke and letting the camera linger on his face. Much has been made of the story of his comeback and the parallels between his life and Randy’s life. I do not care about the backstory, I care about what is on the screen. And what is on the screen is the best performance by an actor all year.

Note: This film is not for the squeamish. There’s a sequence that proves you just how real wrestling is by showing–in graphic detail– the injuries suffered in the ring, which is more awful than any over-the-top horror film violence, since what people will do to themselves in real life can be more shocking and horrible than any serial killer flick. Aronofsky has proven in the past that he knows a thing or two about this.

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~ by russellhainline on January 12, 2009.

One Response to “The Wrestler: Heartbreak As Real As The Battle Scars”

  1. Mickey Rourke filled his role in The Wrestler really well… maybe too well

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