Like any great movie, The Wrestler opens with a bang. Only this explosion is far more subtle than what you’re expecting. For the first few minutes of the film, the camera stays tight on our protagonist’s back. The audience moves around in their seats, trying to get a glimpse at that battered face. When we finally do see Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, we’re reminded of the once Brando-esque good looks Mickey Rourke used to have. His fine features now buried under smashed cheekbones and a bruised nose. This is how you begin to care about a character.
Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is a 21st century masterpiece. It’s a simple story about a once glorious professional wrestler who is now a self proclaimed “broken down piece of meat”. Randy’s life has been wasted on women, drugs, booze, and all that comes with the price of fame. He has no real relationships to speak of, and barely enough money to pay the rent on his trailer. He gets wrestling gigs when he can, at elementary schools or community centers, but for the most part, he lives quietly and alone.
It’s hard not to see the parallels in Randy and Rourke. Rourke exploded on the screen in the early 80’s, giving wrenching performances in Body Heat, Diner and Rumble Fish. Soon he became the sex icon of his generation, heating up the screen in 9 ½ Weeks, Angel Heart and Wild Orchid. In 1991 he quit acting to become a boxer, something he wasn’t good at given the amount of facial reconstruction he’s gone through. He’s recently found himself in smaller, but noticeable roles in films like Man on Fire and Sin City. But now, the notoriously difficult actor delivers the role of a lifetime.
Rourke gives Randy more than a heart, he gives him a spirit. Randy is a kind man despite the pathetic circumstances in which he lives. When he’s not strapped in tights, battling other men, he works at a local grocery store, keeping to himself. He frequents a strip club where his only real “friend” is a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). It’s Cassidy that convinces Randy to get back in touch with his daughter that can’t stand him (Evan Rachel Wood).
When he’s in the ring, Randy goes through the cheorgraphed steps that he and his competitor have developed beforehand backstage. But even though the moves are fake and expected, the pain is not. Think staple guns, chairs, windows and barbed wire.
I can only say good things about this movie and the performances. In his scenes with Wood, Rourke is a tender revelation, wanting nothing more than to reconnect with a person he admittedly abandoned. Tomei has great chemistry with Rourke, their characters lead similar lives: sad, ashamed, and even using fake names that sound pleasing to customers.
Aronofsky has always shocked. His Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain are great experiments in narrative filmmaking. The Wrestler is his most simple film to date, not to mention his best. He fought hard to cast Rourke as Randy (the studios wanted a bankable star), and man how it has paid off.
An Oscar for Best Actor seems like too small a gift for Rourke. This performance is one of the best of this or any year. Years from now, it will be studied by film students and remembered by everyone who sees it. He, along with Tomei and Wood, give the best performances of their career.
There is one downside to The Wrestler. Much in the way of The Dark Knight, The Wrestler is being overshadowed by a performance. People talk about the Joker more than they do about the movie. Everyone who sees The Wrestler will associate greatness to Rourke’s performance. But it’s a performance stuck in the middle of a brilliant film. Remember the camera shots used to highlight Randy’s physique, the grainy texture of the film itself, and the supporting performances that help accentuate Rourke’s. This is one of the best films of the year, which just happens to boast one of the very best screen performances of recent memory. A+
Note: Stay for the credits to hear Bruce Springsteen’s original, fantastic title song. It’ll be a sin if he doesn’t win the Best Song Oscar.