The Wrestler ****
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Robert D. Siegal
Mickey Rourke as Randy 'The Ram' Robinson
Marisa Tomei as Cassidy
Evan Rachel Wood as Stephanie Robinson
Rated R for violence, sexuality/nudity, language and some drug use.
"The Wrestler" is that one film that seems to come out during the second half of the year that creeps out and slaps viewers across the face, but in a good way. After surprisingly winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, and than quickly being bought by Fox Searchlight in what feels like record time to be released only three months later, "The Wrestler" also surprised me because its the first film by Darren Aronofsky that I actually felt passion about. While I did admire aspects of "Requiem for a Dream" and "The Fountain" enough to recommend to certain people, I felt they were far too boggled down in their visuals for me to actually express emotion about them. Even the final fifteen minutes of "Requiem for a Dream" felt manipulative, although I will say that they were well done in doing that.
But with 'the Wrestler," Aronofsky crosses a few different paths. Instead of writing the film himself, he works with a script by Robert D. Siegal. Instead of shooting with several million dollars to create a visionary film, he works with natural lighting, and mellow interference from behind the camera. And there is also something Aronofsky has here that he did not have with his other films: Mickey Rourke. A lot of ink has been used on Rourke's performance, and while I do not know much about Rourke's filmography, I can still recognize and great and personal performance when I see one, and as Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, Mickey Rourke is doing just that.
Randy Robinson, also know as 'The Ram' to his fans, was once the world's heavyweight champion, but old age has ended that reign despite still having a fan base in underground wrestling. Plans to have a rematch between himself and one of his most famous opponents are soon put at a standstill when Randy is told by doctors that he can never wrestle again. Trying very hard to accept that, Randy decides to figure out things in his own life that he messed up long ago. The first thing he tries to do is form an actual relationship between himself and Cassidy, a stripper at a club that Randy frequently visits. She holds back, living at home with a son and only doing the stripper job because it pays well, and instead suggests to him that he patch things up with his daughter Stephanie, who is living with another girl and wants nothing to do with him.
"The Wrestler" does not cover never ground with the type of story that it is telling-the down on his luck-has been who is trying to make a change in his life-but its the way that it is presented that makes it a successful endeavor. And Rourke completely hides himself in this character, breathing so much realism into it that at times one forgets that they are watching a film. Aronofsky works with humdrum details in The Rams life, and the most revealing ends up being two comparative scenes where Randy is working at a deli counter. The first scene runs for well over two minutes, and watching someone take food orders may not seem interesting, but its because it seems so realistic that it ends up being just that. The second scene features the same situation only at a different point in Randy's life. The intensity that he brings to it is reason enough for Rourke is win as many awards as he does. Scenes in the ring are almost painful to watch, and Aronofsky does not shy away from showing the brutality that goes into this sport, despite the fact that all the fights and moves are discussed and planned far in advance.
The way the script handles what could have been a cliche underdog story are terrific, and the story ends at such an oddly tragic, yet uplifting, moment that, a moment that I have not seen end a character for quite some time. But it is fitting. This is the story of a man who gave up everything because he's good in the ring, and despite having his problems and flaws he is still a damn good fighter. And when all is said and done, he is still a failure outside of the ring because he is just not comfortable. And its interesting to see Rourke, an actor who infamously was involved in struggles and drugs and violence and other such things, play a part that he can clearly connect with, and the actor and character fuse into one living and breathing being. It's just a joy to watch such a comeback of this calibur, and it really elevates "The Wrestler" to one of the best films of the year. I was surprised by how involved I connected to this film, especially considering my history to many of the talents involved.
There is also good work here by Marisa Tomei, as Cassidy, and Evan Rachel Wood as Stephanie. Cassidy is the stripper with the heart of gold character that we've seen time and time again, but its what Tomei does with the character that makes her original, and instead of molding and inspiring Randy, she ends up playing a role in his undoing. Wood only appears in three scenes, but also plays a part in Randy's undoing. The second of their scenes together, where she grudgingly agrees to go out for lunch with him, is the emotional centerpiece of the film and almost difficult to watch because one knows it cannot end as happily as that. "The Wrestler" is a complete triumph, and is American film making at its finest.