Ever since it won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler has beet hotly anticipated and those not lucky enough to catch it in Toronto or at the NY Film Festival should now understand why. While The Wrestler is continually being referred to as the filmmaker’s return to form or other such hogwash from people who didn’t see the beauty in his last film, The Fountain. Thankfully, his latest has no such barriers to its success and this exceptional film is one of the best-reviewed films of the year.
The Wrestler is being compared to Rocky and while it is similar in a few superficial ways, its core message and lead character are distinctly different. Rocky was a bum. He wasn’t a had been, he was a “never was.” He’d never been close to a contender and was more like On the Waterfront‘s Terry Molloy (except that Rocky eventually became “somebody,” of course). On the other hand, The Wrestler‘s Randy “The Ram” Robinson (achingly played by a resurgent Mickey Rourke) was a superstar.
He was on top of his game as a professional wrestler in a sport that is probably only 3rd behind boxing and football in the toll taken on the bodies of participants, but unlike football, there is no pension plan for the retired stars of the ring. No second career as an announcer or spokesperson, no Nutrisystem ads and no speaking engagements. Anyone who derides the sport as “fake” ought to take a gander at a dictionary, as there’s nothing ersatz about what goes on in a pro wrestling ring except the outcome. Choreographed it is, fake it is not.
Randy earns a meager living performing in high school gyms and community rec centers around New Jersey, selling 8×10 prints at various conventions and picking up the odd shift at a local supermarket. He’s occasionally locked out of his trailer due to failure to pay the rent and his only friends are the neighborhood kids and a local stripper named Cassidy (Marissa Tomei) in whom he clearly has more than a passing interest (and who still makes him pay for his lapdances). Constant pain pill popping, hearing aids and an estranged daughter make Randy’s continued search for ring glory and his equally quixotic pursuit of Cassidy pretty much the only things he has to live for.
Aronofsky’s grainy, largely hand-held direction makes the most of the harsh winter light and the world that Randy inhabits, contributing to the film’s overall sparse and downtrodden feel and infusing the picture with a layer of melancholy. The real stars here, however, are Rourke and Tomei. Rourke gives a truly great performance, one of the ultimate portrayals of lost glory. Despite being in a profession that straddles the line between sport and spectacle, Ram is an everyman. All he wants is to excel at the job he loves, make up for past sins by reconnecting with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and get the girl but life and his own behavior have conspired to leave him in the dumps. A has-been star depending on steroids and the weekend chair-to-the-head wrestling matches. Tomei is pitch perfect as the stripper coming to the end of her career. She perfectly inhabits Cassidy (not her real name…duh) as the older dancer who’s holding on to her youth because she’s afraid to move on, afraid to answer the question: What does an ex-stripper do, anyway?
Aronofsky, Rourke and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel have combined to create one of the more memorable characters and films in recent memory. An indie film that wasn’t picked up until after its triumph in Venice, The Wrestler is stark proof that no matter how few original stories there may be in the world, it’s still possible to cover new ground with an ancient fable and have it shine.
Mickey Rourke talks at the 2008 New York Film Festival about what it took for him to turn things around and make his comeback.
Photos by Niko Tavernise, TM and © 2008 Fox and its related entities. All rights reserved.
Video © Mark Rabinowitz. All rights reserved.