Rourke has the body for the job. He’s broad and strong and battered about the ribs and face. His hair is platinum and crimped; his body tanned like a cowhide. Rourke’s abused his looks for the role while understanding that Ram goes about his beauty routine with the vanity of a man who trusts a style that scored him a heap of chicks in the ’80s. It’s a hell of a performance, and a hellish one, the type of part an actor plays when he shares his character’s demons. More specifically, it’s a hell of a performance in a film that isn’t entirely sure what to do with it. Robert D. Siegel’s script is solidly conventional. If it had starred anyone else, it’d be respectable ephemera—another story about a failure who doesn’t know he’s a failure that we root for at the safe distance of fiction. (If the Ram was our neighbor, we wouldn’t trust him to mow our lawn.) Ram falls for a stripper (Marisa Tomei, good), who like him is starting to suspect her days of earning cash on her limbs are drawing to a close. She doesn’t have a plan either, only a nine-year-old son and a dream to raise him in a condo. Ram’s own kid, daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), is beyond reach. He doesn’t even know her birthday, and she doesn’t want a thing to do with him.
Aronofsky is known to clutter his films with flourishes that irritate more than illuminate. He’s a smart guy who wants to be sure we know it, as opposed to Charlie Kaufman (a genius who worries he’s a fool) and David Lynch (a shallow artist pretending to be deep). Here, Aronofsky does something I’ve never seen him do: He lets Rourke own the movie. And it works. The Wrestler mourns the ’80s; a time when men were men—even if they dressed like women—and Aronofsky was a teenager. He doesn’t really get the era and isn’t above using hair metal as a shorthand. But Rourke and Tomei clink beers and cackle that “Kurt Cobain was a pussy!” with the brash confidence of people whose glory days overlap, and now enjoy the trust of their shared secret hope that at least they can still be cool for each other. That’s the comfort of having nothing to prove, and it’s good to see Aronofsky invite himself into their party.