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The Wrestler   A

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Robert Siegel
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Dylan Summers, Mark Margolis, Ernest Miller.

Review by Rob Vaux

It physically hurts to watch Mickey Rourke move in The Wrestler. The opening shot holds on him as his washed-up former übermensch tries to compose himself after a match. He pulls off his padding with labored breathing, slouched over in a folding chair tucked into the corner of some abandoned New Jersey rec center. Everything about him reeks of constant, futile struggle -- of trying to stay in a game that has long since passed him by and of grappling with the consequences of not preparing for this day. But he's still on his feet, more or less: still clinging resolutely to the thing that he loves so much and adamantly refusing to go into the shadows without a fight. It's a doomed effort, of course, but it also makes him one of the most absorbing movie characters of the year.

The Wrestler isn't about wrestling anymore than Requiem for a Heavyweight is about boxing. Rather, it focuses on that industry's impact on this man, how it shaped who he was and dictates who he has become. Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson was a superstar in the 1980s, demanding millions of dollars for every appearance and influencing a generation of adoring blue-collar fans. But the very elements which allowed him to succeed back then -- the grandiosity, the narcissism, the willingness to lay every inch of his body on the line for a good show -- now make it impossible for him to do anything else. He can't stand the idea of working behind a counter somewhere and he lacks the skills for more sophisticated occupations. He's poured tons of junk into his body over the years, which has eaten him away until he's little more than a blown-up shell. He lives in a trailer, his hearing is fading, and his only daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) hates his guts, but even a full-bore heart attack can only keep him out of the ring for so long. The indie circuit still has room for a guy like him, willing to trade on his name if it will put a few bums on Rotary Hall seats.

Director Darren Aronofsky dispenses with the flashy techniques of his previous two films, instead rendering Randy's story in quasi-vérité form with handheld cameras and stressed improvisation. That lets us focus entirely on the central figure, and as has been mentioned elsewhere, rarely have character and performer melded together so seamlessly. Rourke, who nearly squandered a brilliant career before making a late-inning comeback, has been through the same war and learned its painful lessons. He plays Randy as supremely sympathetic, marked by his slow courtship of an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei, very strong), halting efforts to reconnect with his little girl, and honorable wish to stand by his word in matters of work and money. Yet the sense of entitlement still lingers beneath the surface: the need to be at the center of attention and the aggressiveness which made his fortune, now tilted only in self-destructive directions. The balance and nuance of this portrait hold realities that perhaps only Rourke can fully understand.

So too does Aronofsky feel like a perfect fit for the material. His distrust of sentimentality is matched only by his devotion to unflinching truth, and stripped of the pretensions of his more bombastic efforts, he cuts fiercely to the essence of this wounded, lonely man. Flashes of humor lend The Wrestler the right touch of absurdity (screenwriter Robert Siegel was the former editor in chief for The Onion), as does the deeply authentic feeling of how pro wrestling works behind the scenes. Aronofsky admires the physical abilities displayed by these men, and yet never sugarcoats the toll exacted by doing what they do. (One extreme match involves being punctured with an industrial staple gun, and climaxes with a fall from a ladder onto coils of barbed wire.) The film admires their daring and love for the sport as much as it decries their willing exploitation. The mystique they carry is rigorously dissected by Randy's trials and travails, proving an apt metaphor for anyone struggling with the choices they have made in life. That Rourke's performance is the best of the year is almost beyond doubt; that the film itself justifies such an effort is only icing on the cake.

Review published 12.18.2008.

Also read: Q&A with Mickey Rourke.

Also read: Q&A with Darren Aronofsky.

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