05 February 2009

Movielog, The Wrestler

The Wrestler, 2008
Written by Robert D. Siegel
Directed by Darren Aronofksky
115 minutes

Darren Aronofsky is generally recognized more for his technical brilliance and hypercompetent visuals more than for his ability to work with actors, but anyone who has seen Ellen Burstyn's performance in Requiem for a Dream should realize that Aronofsky is no stranger to the needs of actors, and is able to coax career-best performances even out of the best actors in the business today. So it's no surprise that Mickey Rourke's performance in The Wrestler is a revelation, the kind of performance that actors will be studying for decades to come, and that will restore Rourke to his rightful place among the first class of actors after a decades-long slump.

Rourke is Randy "The Ram" Robinson, who in the mid-eighties was a world-famous WWF wrestler on par with Hulk Hogan and "Macho Man" Randy Savage. Two decades later he is still wrestling, but for tiny crowds on the slushy New Jersey circuit and making barely enough money to scrape by even in a good month. His body has been crushed and put back together so many times that we can almost hear his bones creak and his sinew snap as he moves on-screen; this is where performer and character run almost neck-and-neck, as Rourke himself shows the signs of his years of physical abuse on his physique.

Rourke is to be commended for his lack of ego in this movie. When he's not in the ring he wears thick glasses and a hearing aid; these along with long bleached hair occasionally give him the look of somebody's grandmother. He's an old broken down man barely scraping by on his wrestling income and a supplemental job working in the back of a grocery store. He lives in a crappy single-wide trailer when he has money and in the back of his rusting van when he doesn't.

It's a solitary life except for the stripper Cassidy (Marissa Tomei) whom he sees professionally and would like to see more personally. Like him she works in a profession where her appearance of physical perfection is key, and like him, she is getting to the point where maintaining that fantasy is becoming impossible. Okay, sure, she still looks like this:

...but the kids with the money to blow on a private dance with a stripper tend to work on the assumption that anyone over twenty-five is old and anyone over thirty might as well be a grandmother. Tomei looks fantastic in The Wrestler (and spends about sixty percent of her time on-screen in a state of some undress, which is always okay in my book), but for Cassidy, it won't be long before she's too over the hill to bring in the cash the way she used to.

It is a strength of The Wrestler that the film doesn't give the audience the pat solutions to Cassidy and Randy's problems. Clearly the two have chemistry together and care about each other, but is that enough? Randy has a long history of emotional abuse and broken promises (as well as substance issues), as demonstrated by his attempts at reconciliation with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). Randy approaches his daughter without even beginning to understand her, and her response is a defiant "Fuck you." It's Randy's tragedy that even after he begins to break down her barriers and to reconnect with her, his faults come back to rear their ugly head and he destroys all the good work he's done to make it up to her.

I've gone this far without even really talking about Aronofsky's work itself, and that's largely because this is a very different kind of story than Aronofksy's earlier films. Other than a few hints here and there, there's hardly anything here to make this feel like "an Aronofksy picture," partly because for the first time the director is working not from his own script but from the work of a new screenwriter named Robert D. Siegel. Gone are the visual pyrotechnics and in their place are long shots on the back of Randy's head -- we spend a fair chunk of the movie just following him around and experiencing the world as he does.

Even in the more visually dynamic moments in the ring, Aronfsky wisely takes a very restrained visual tack, allowing the images and the performances to speak for themselves. A very violent set-piece near the middle of the movie is in its own way as painful and punishing as the final twenty minutes of Requiem for a Dream, although of course it is about a very different kind of self-abuse. The violence here is much less gory than in something like Repo: The Genetic Opera but by grounding the gore in realism it becomes ten times as horrifying and a thousand times as potent. These are real people hurting themselves for entertainment, and Aronofsky's camera observes without passing judgment.

In the end, The Wrestler is a performance piece first and foremost. Without the astonishing performance by Mickey Rourke, the film would feel contrived at best and a bit cheesy at worst. Rourke's performance (not to slight Tomei, who is also very good) and Aronofsky's direction elevate the material to high drama, and make this story of a washed-out wrestler struggling to make a future for himself one of the best films of the year.

Rating: A-

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