Darren Aronofsky’s career is full of marvelous set pieces, whether haunting, sexy, fun or dangerous, the man knows how to cut a memorable sequence together. Interesting then that one of the best scenes of his career is a patient, heartfelt conversation between a desperate father and the daughter he walked out on long ago.
Soon after Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) suffers a near-fatal heart attack, he decides to reenter the life of his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Their first meeting doesn’t go well, with Stephanie becoming enraged after Randy uses his illness as a ploy for pity. But during their next encounter, Randy comes offering gifts, and convinces Stephanie to hang out with him at their old favorite spot.
We cut to the drab, isolated boardwalk in Ashbury Park, New Jersey. Stephanie doesn’t remember ever coming here with her father, but Randy recalls fond memories of year’s past at this very spot. After a moment, we cut to a wide establishing shot of Randy and Stephanie sitting in a large, hollowed out portion of the boardwalk. The distance of this shot helps solidify the emotional detachment between Randy and Stephanie, as do the close-ups, which are careful to never frame the two actors together. And it is during Rourke’s close-up that he delivers what is, in no uncertain terms, the single best scene of his career.
Randy begins by admitting fault. Admitting that he was supposed to be the caretaker; he was supposed to stay and make things right. “It just didn’t work out like that,” he dimly offers. Then Randy does something dangerous, at least as far as apologies go, and relents his weakest moment: that he used to pretend Stephanie didn’t exist. Notice the devastating, self-reflective chuckle that Randy lets out, mocking his own selfishness. Randy’s apology ends with the now famous sentences that define The Wrestler, and its star in general. Equating himself to a piece of meat, admitting that he deserves to live alone.
There are so many things to note about this scene, perhaps most significant is that the dialogue was all created by Mickey Rourke himself. He told Aronofsky that if he had to give this moment his all, then the words had to be his. Aronofsky let Rourke roll with it, and the actor delivered one of the most moving monologues I’ve ever heard. Another aspect of the scene to note is Wood’s performance (which, in general, didn’t garner nearly the amount of acclaim it deserved). She forces Stephanie to conceal emotion until it is no longer possible, formulating an expression of shame, fear, anger and forgiveness, all in the span of a few seconds. The result is nearly as moving as Rourke’s heartfelt delivery.
But what a delivery it is, timed perfectly with two falling tears of pain right as Randy speaks his final words. That’s the skill of an actor at his most vulnerable, completely in touch with his craft. It’s an actor gently announcing that he’s back in the ring, with no intention of leaving. I’m still holding out hopes that Rourke will live up to his promise.