The Wrestler Review

Mickey Rourke's comeback movie, The Wrestler, is a curious example of taking a subject, directly exploring that subject, and still resulting in something that ultimately keeps the subject well situated in the periphery. Darren Aronofsky's film doesn't truly care about wrestling or wrestlers any more than Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar was about the plight of donkeys. Wrestling is a vessel for finding other truths about its bleach blonde has-been just as working the pole at a New Jersey strip club conjures a certain type of preconception-laden misery. Ends are trying to be met, honestly, physically and with encouragement from strangers who only care about the release they're getting. Rourke's Randy "the Ram" Robinson and Marisa Tomei's character, known as "Cassidy" when the neon lights are glowing but Pam elsewhere, face some of the same mileage struggles but differ in solutions. Where she recognizes the fleeting nature of a gig that's still necessary, he sees performance (and possibly its preparations) as the ultimate, the end unto itself.

Aside from the actors, The Wrestler feels like a collaboration between three people. Aronofsky's unexpected restraint results in arguably the best film he's helmed. Screenwriter and former editor of The Onion Robert Siegel delivers an extremely basic, cliche-ridden script that surprisingly manages to exceed its apparent limitations. Director of photography Maryse Alberti is a key factor in stripping the film of its unavoidable Hollywood roots. There's quite a bit of the Dardennes in the handheld camera following Rourke from behind, including a nice juxtaposition between the early entering of the ring and the later monotony of a weekend shift in a grocery store deli. I'm impressed that the work of all three shines brightly, and equally encouraged that the film maintains a smallness that rises organically from these principals. Where it goes from an opening filled with newspaper clippings and announcer bombast is often extraordinary, if sometimes too dependent on the formula it otherwise conquers.

The Ram's life is one typically frowned upon by society, as is Cassidy's. He drives around in an automobile model that bears his nickname, bristling and correcting when someone addresses him by his given name of Robin Ramzinski. As his own biggest fan, the Ram keeps an action figure of himself on the dashboard and enjoys playing a Nintendo game against local kids in which he's a prominent character. There's a pathetic quality here, potentially exacerbated by the knowledge of Rourke's own problems. His performance is remarkable, if for no other reason than how bravely raw it is. We have to keep in mind the possibility that Rourke was completely laying it all out there in a last-ditch attempt at salvaging a once-promising career, but the seeming honesty of his work is so compelling as to render any questions about the parallels between actor and character as basically unimportant. It may be fun to measure the two, it's just not necessary given the achievement of what's on screen.

I was pleased to discover that no disconnect emerged for me personally from seeing Rourke's many awards season appearances. I watched a few of these interviews in complete fascination, particularly one he did with Charlie Rose that should've been on this release by any means necessary, and wondered whether the actor could even dismantle his own ego at this point. It's easy to want him to succeed, but there's still that lingering feeling that he's destined for self-destruction. His Independent Spirit Awards acceptance speech probably reveals most everything you'd need to know. I'm not begrudging his success in the least, and he's such a fantastic actor that I'd hope he maintains some degree of control over himself, but there's no analyzing of the Mickey Rourke character at this point. He's impossible to separate from a persona. So, as I hinted at, it was a pleasure to be just as or more enthralled by The Wrestler this time around as when I saw the film early in its release.

Rourke delivers a wonderful gentility to his character that perfectly contrasts the brutal theatrics in the ring. The Ram has time for anyone and everyone. When his internet porn-watching boss at the supermarket repeatedly lobs little sarcastic insults at Randy, the former superstar doesn't even respond. He doesn't argue when daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) yells hysterically or calls him a "fuck-up" either. There's also little protest when the Ram comes home to a locked door courtesy of his trailer park landlord. Cassidy's rebukes are met with small needling and, finally, acceptance from Randy. His rage only takes shape once and that's less aimed at someone else than general frustration. There's almost a suspense Aronofsky conjures from these situations. Randy comes off as a time bomb waiting to explode and ready to give up on normal life.

You wonder where Randy's been in the interim between the opening titles and the "20 years later" that comes next. Has it been weekdays in the warehouse and weekends getting beaten to a bloody pulp this entire time? He's still hawking VHS tapes at the local American Legion and using a pay phone to make calls so there's an easy recognition that the Ram hasn't exactly found himself as a 21st century man. Again, this is where Rourke excels because the character seems so sympathetic, to the point of the audience being drawn to him despite presumed indiscretions and ones we plainly see during the course of the movie. His flaws and inevitable implosion are wholly forgiven. There's a sense that the Ram has repeatedly been taken advantage of without properly getting his due. Cassidy equates him early on with a punished Christ-like figure, which is obviously a thick comparison but one that nonetheless weighs on the mind. He really does have some Balthazar in him, and Aronofsky quietly continues the exploitation.

The Disc(s)

The Region A Blu-ray released by Fox comes a few weeks ahead of Optimum's scheduled UK edition on the first of June. A digital copy disc pads the inside of the case.

Having seen just how grainy The Wrestler looked in cinemas I was prepared for a similar presentation on Blu-ray. It's not quite as flush with grain as expected, but the Super 16 format still provides a grittier look than your typical new release. Some scenes show this more prominently than others. Otherwise, the 2.35:1 image presents no surprises. Detail is reasonably good without looking marvelous. Colors like the neon green of the Ram's pants muscle through sharply in the image. I thought night scenes were actually a strength in how much detail is available.

Audio options are limited to an English 5.1 DTS-HD track and a Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital dub. The DTS-HD wonderfully lets the roar of the crowd swell in and put us right in the center of all the various cheers and boos heard in the ring. The occasional guitar work by Slash is placed carefully into the mix while a song like "Welcome to the Jungle" rumbles out. Dialogue is presented clearly and at a consistent volume. Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired and Spanish.

The lengthy featurette "Within the Ring" (42:43) is a making-of variety platter. It's heavy on behind the scenes wrestling footage, but also dotted with interviews from various personnel including Aronofsky (but not Rourke or Tomei). Rourke's stunt double is even shown and there are a few pieces of scenes here that aren't in the final cut of the film. Stranger still, it begins with a clip of Fredric March and Carole Lombard from the film Nothing Sacred that's in black and white despite that particular picture having been made in Technicolor.

A "Wrestler Round Table" (25:23) featurette looks to be exclusive to the Blu-ray release. Five former wrestlers (Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake, "Diamond" Dallas Page, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Lex Luger, and Greg "The Hammer" Valentine) gather to discuss the film with a moderator. They like the movie and seem to give it a nice seal of approval. The idea of wrestling being fake is a favorite subject.

Bruce Springsteen's music video (3:59) for "The Wrestler," the evocative song he did that plays over the film's closing credits, is also included. It's not boosted to 16x9 like the featurettes.

Some trailers for Wolverine, Slumdog Millionaire and Notorious and a short promo for Springsteen's latest album Working on a Dream play when the disc is inserted. No sign, however, of the trailer for The Wrestler.

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Category Blu-Ray Review

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