The Wrestler

Posted December 18, 2008 in Film

Wrestling is fake, admits Darren Aronofsky’s fourth and most forthright film. But it’s not feigned. Before the match, Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke) might hug his competitors—the ambitious Tommy Rotten (Tommy Farra), the cocky Ayatollah (Ernest ‘The Cat’ Miller), and the deranged Necro Butcher (playing himself)—and he’ll definitely arrange who goes down and how. Still, the bruises and blood are all real, even if Ram stashes razor blades in his costume to make the red run in thick, sticky sheets. The Wrestler is about a man, a faded, broke ex-star without the mental resources to make a safe living. At its core, though, it’s really about a body. That’s all Ram has to offer the world, and it hurts us almost more than it seems to hurt him to watch it get punched, kicked, thrown, cut, smashed through glass, ripped on barbed wire, snared in mouse traps, gassed with bug spray, and stapled—yes, stapled—after which a long, merciless tracking shot follows him limping backstage, the lights glinting off the metal teeth stuck in his back like kernels on a corn cob.  


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.


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