This is a drama about an aging professional wrestler, decades past his prime, who now barely gets by working small wrestling shows in VFW halls and as a part-time grocery store employee. As he faces health problems that may end his wrestling career for good he attempts to come to terms with his life outside the ring: by working full time at the grocery store, trying to reconcile with the daughter he abandoned in childhood and forming a closer bond with a stripper he has romantic feelings for. He struggles with his new life and an offer of a high-profile rematch with his 1980s arch-nemesis, The Ayatollah, which may be his ticket back to stardom.Written by
Enough has been written already about Mickey Rourke's real-life parallels with his fictional character in The Wrestler. Yes, it makes the story seem even realer, and is perhaps what attracted Rourke to the project. (Or perhaps not perhaps, instead, it is what attracted Darren Aronofsky to the actor.) But to focus on such surface similarities seems like an undermining of his work here. Rourke may not be as out-of-his-comfort-zone as Sean Penn in Milk, the only other Oscar-worthy lead performance this year, but that is merely a testament to his fundamental understanding of his character: Randy is an understated guy with big scars, both literally and figuratively. He's been wrestling for years now reduced to borderline tribute shows in front of dwindling crowds, scrounging up barely enough cash to buy the variety of drugs and steroids he needs to maintain his weight. He lives in a trailer park and gets locked out for not being able to keep up rent. He works part-time at a grocery store and visits strip clubs regularly, because it's the only place where he seemingly has any meaningful connections with another human being namely the dancer Cassidy (played by Marisa Tomei), who is similarly a bit older than most peers in her "profession," yet doesn't really know any other way to live.
The Wrestler draws immediate comparison to the classics of working class cinema, including Rocky and On the Waterfront. Sylvester Stallone returned to his iconic character two years to bring resolution to the life of Rocky Balboa, the Philly boxer who got back in the ring for one final match . It was a good film and touched on similar themes a nice guy stuck in a mean world, an estranged child and ultimately both films present us with the dilemma these men find themselves in: too old to continue doing what they know best, and too old to learn how to do anything else.
Whereas Rocky Balboa was a trip down memory lane, it was hardly as bleak or frank as The Wrestler, which is a vastly superior film. Darren Aronofsky has established himself with this picture as one of the most important of modern American filmmakers; to acknowledge that this work is from the same man who directed The Fountain is astonishing, because they couldn't be farther apart on a sylistic level. The Wrestler is grainy, low-key and rough. It isn't polished, fantastical or elaborate. And that suits the material perfectly. The fact that Aronofsky was willing to almost entirely reinvent his approach for the benefit of the story is more than admirable. He deserves a nomination.
Tomei is wonderful in her supporting role, fleshing out her character (again, both literally and figuratively) with greater competence than most actresses would probably be able to manage, because it's a fairly obvious role the "stripper with a heart of gold" who is the object of desire for the gruff guy with a tortured soul. Yet she manages to strike a balance in the film as one of two female roles, the other belonging to Evan Rachel Wood as Randy's emotionally severed daughter.
The Wrestler is impressive for all its smaller parts as well as the larger ones. When Randy goes to visit his daughter, the reaction is fleeting; it's not overly dramatic and revelatory, like most films of this nature often create such scenes to be. We can tell by her reaction that it's not the first time Randy has attempted to reconcile with her, as she seems unfazed by his appearance on her doorstep. It is in this fashion that the film jumps through all the mandatory hoops of its genre (think, of all things, The Royal Tenenbaums), yet still manages to seem fresh and realistic.
And then there's Rourke. As aforementioned, he deserves the Oscar nom he's likely to receive. And he should probably win. This is one of the best performances of the decade, perhaps even of all time, if we really want to get down to it. It's the best work of his career, at once the most fully developed of his characters and the most imperfect. Randy isn't airbrushed to make him seem more appealing to the audience; Aronofsky and Rourke exploit his faults and present him as a normal man, tempted by vices and haunted by his past. Yet we recognize that the drugs, the empty sex and the generally self-destructive behavior Randy partakes in is rooted in the same emotional enguish that the actor himself seems to carry with him; Aronofsky spotted this quality in Rourke, and he fought the producers for Rourke over their first choice (Nicolas Cage), and his dedication paid off you'll be hard-pressed to find a more convincing, moving or memorable lead performance this year.
Ultimately, The Wrestler is one of the year's very best films a character study that is at once timeless and powerful. And it's helmed by a director who has managed to bounce back from an aesthetically pleasing but shallow art-house film to produce one of the great works of American cinema in the 21st century.
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