THE WRESTLER (2008, directed by Darren Aronofsky, 105 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC I know we’re in Rocky’s hometown but I’ve been taken aback at how many folks have voiced tingly anticipation about seeing ’80s tough guy heart-throb Mickey Rourke as the washed-up title character in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. When he kickboxed with Jean-Claude Van Damme a decade ago no one cared but now that Rourke’s hit his fifties the idea of him dressing up like David Lee Roth and jumping off the top rope has big city audiences rushing to the Art Houses? What gives?
It started with the hype for Rourke’s open-sore performance, which began building once the film won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Similar to Stallone’s performance in the original Rocky, the gristled Rourke and the character he plays here tend to blur together. When Aronofsky’s camera stares unblinkingly at the sight of Rourke’s reddened features, we see both the face that the actor has mangled with boxing and surgery as well as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, seemingly ravaged head to toe by steroids and turnbuckles.
That face! Once so handsome he charmed audiences playing the stud in big budget smokers like Nine & A Half Weeks and Wild Orchid, now twenty years later he’s confined to villains and oddballs. Rourke’s fall from grace began around 1991’s biker buddy film Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man and after some ugly spousal abuses charges tainted his reputation he disappeared into a none-too-successful career in prize-fighting. By the late ’90s Rourke’s face began morph until he was barely recognizable, which he nonetheless put to good effect as the tranny cellmate of Edward Furlong in 2001’s Animal Factory. Rourke found himself unexpectedly hot again after his heavily made-up turn as the rock-chinned Marv in 2005’s Sin City, again allowing the actor to tap into the charisma behind his now-distorted features.
With the bleached-blonde faded wrestler Randy, director Aronofsky has created (with a script by Onion writer Robert D. Siegel) another character that is fit for Rourke’s face, a man whose body and soul are at the end of a road marked by short-sighted decisions. His torso is still pumped up like the old Randy The Ram action figure he keeps on his dash board, but his powerful frame can not protect him from endless daily humiliations. Although locked out of his trailer and sleeping in his car Randy lacks anger at fame’s slippery slope. He is just glad to still be in the game, keeping weekends free so he can withstand graphic abuse and hear the dimming adulation of die-hard fans in half-filled high school gyms.
Randy finds another sweet and broken soul in an aging lap-dancer named Cassidy (a similarly scrappy-comeback for Marisa Tomei). Like Randy she’s another performer not truly old but the world is not gentle in reminding her that she is past her professional prime. While Ratt’s hair metal hit “Round and Round” plays on the jukebox, Randy and Cassidy momentarily kiss yet even the rundown Cassidy can’t bring herself to work up much more than pity for this musclebound relic. Randy has a daughter (played by Evan Rachel Wood) who is equally as nervous about trusting a broken-down mess like Randy.
Aronofsky has done away with the hyper-stylized visuals that grace his earlier features, replacing them with a grainy and austere style courtesy of documentary cameraman Maryse Alberti (Crumb). They get the seedy details of Jersey life right, all the painted cinderblock back rooms and the broken-down Main Streets while the matches take advantage of actual wrestling circuit regulars like The Necro Butcher to make you feel like you’re really there. The film is less successful when it turns these authentic moments towards melodrama at the end. At times feeling like one of those false narratives created by editing and coercion for reality TV, The Wrestler might have seemed a bit fresher if it had avoided hauling out age-old fight film cliches that go back at least as far as boozy Wallace Beery in 1931’s The Champ.
When he poses Randy in front of the Stars and Stripes you know Aronofsky wants us to see Randy as a typically American figure, demonstrating everything F. Scott Fitzgerald was speaking of when he noted our lives lack “second acts”. “But Randy, your heart … .”Cassidy pleads, as the battered actor risks collapse to enter the ring and trade blows with the Arab bad guy one last time. Will Randy’s ring addiction kill him or perhaps worse yet, is he stuck cutting meat at the deli counter for life? Staring this dead-end right in the eyes, Rourke’s hang-dog performance guarantees that no one will accuse this ruthlessly sad portrait of lacking heart.