The Wrestler Review
With his last film, The Fountain - a mystic science-fictional parable spanning three diverse time periods - Darren Aronofsky fostered certain expectations as a director, but The Wrestler could hardly be more different, using hand-held camera and a grungy, jump-cutty documentary style to look into the world of Randy 'The Ram' Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a former big name in the sport but now long past his prime. Such is the vérité approach to the subject that for the first few minutes the camera merely follows Randy around as he conducts his business, giving us ample views of the back of his head with its long mane of bleach-blond hair. However a picture surely emerges of a dedicated loser, living on the edges of past glories, the law of diminishing returns eating into him minute by minute.
Randy is now relegated to the small-time independent circuit and the measly handful of dollar bills he collects for a bout won't stretch to paying the rent on his trailer home - or maybe that's because he spends too much of it on booze and his favourite lap dancer, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), down at his local club. To maintain his ageing musculature, he must partake of a variety of pharmaceuticals, including steroids and painkillers, that also take a toll on his finances and his health, which we learn is far from tip-top. Randy is alone in the world and his only family is his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who has such a mountain of issues with her father that she can't stand the sight of him. Clearly Randy has reached some kind of a watershed moment: he's getting too old for his chosen game but what else can he do?
As for the wrestling itself, though we know it's all choreographed and no one really gets hurt, it's still a tough and bruising affair with hard knocks to be taken. At Randy's level, wrestlers don't stop at the usual holds, throws and slams, but attack each other with barbed wire, staple guns and sheets of glass - all for fun, of course. Randy has to tackle younger, fitter opponents and constantly put on a show for an audience who demand a high quotient of anarchy and pain. He gets hurled around, jumped on, struck in a myriad different ways, and even has to cut himself to satisfy the requirement for bloodiness - surely there must be easier ways to make a living.
Aronofsky's approach certainly pays off, for he persuades us that what we're seeing is completely authentic. The cast includes real wrestlers, such as Ernest 'The Cat' Miller and Dylan Summers 'The Necro Butcher', and the behind-the-scenes camaraderie of these professional barbarians, always gentlemanly outside the ring, completes the picture of this weird sub-culture. Mickey Rourke himself gained considerable weight and spend three months training with an Israeli cage fighter for the role. He does all his own stunts and his history as a boxer, with the attendant facial damage and the consequent plastic surgery repair jobs, all combine to make him totally convincing as 'The Ram'.
Of course The Wrestler belongs loosely to the genre of ring-fighting movies that would include Raging Bull and Rocky Balboa, where an aged champ has to re-define himself in disadvantageous circumstances, and it carries many of those tropes. But what makes it special is Rourke's inhabitation of his character, bringing to bear the lessons of his own troubled background, so that more than ever it feels like he's 'playing himself'. The vulnerability and pathos Randy exhibits when trying to patch things up with Stephanie, or cross the customer/lap dancer line with Cassidy, or put up with working behind a deli counter in order to earn extra cash, are perfectly tuned and really get to you. The trick which comes off is that we're all rooting for him in the larger battle arena of his whole life, and we so want him to swim rather than sink.
We can work out where things are heading for Randy and when he has his defining moment, it is truly heartening and transcends the trap of cliché that will always await such a movie as this. The final shot is masterful and stays with you, reverberating. So for Darren Aronofsky, whose last film divided audiences and critics, this is quite a coup - an 'arthouse' fight movie that really works. And for Mickey Rourke, whose acting career has been as chequered as any fighter's, this performance taken alongside his excellent Marv in Sin City, seem to mark a definitive comeback. Classically The Fountain turned out to be one of those movies that many love to hate, but conversely The Wrestler could turn out to be one of those unlikely, offbeat projects that end up richly garlanded.