Man is not a perfect machine. He is flawed, easily broken, capable of incredibly feats and destined to die off damaged and corrupt. Luckily for most of us, we don’t rely on our bodies to earn our keep. While we need our physicality to function, we are usually not graded or rewarded on it. The athlete, on the other hand, sacrifices his engine every competition, seeking out the structural disrepair we strictly avoid to march one inch closer to immortality. What they never quite understand, however, is that such everlasting fame is elusive and very rare. Even worse, there’s dozens of wannabe replacements all eager to prove their indestructible mantle.
For Randy “The Ram” Robinson, eternal stardom came quickly and burned very, very bright. As one of the ‘80s premiere wrestlers, he was a title holder and a public draw. He was so popular he even had his own action figure. Now, two decades later, he is battered, bruised, and broken. Taking menial matches on the weekends to supplement his food service, trailer park existence, he’s desperate to reclaim his past glory. While in remarkable shape for a man of his age, life is apparently set to beat him down one last time. A literal busted heart, a grim diagnosis, and it looks like The Ram’s career is done. But for this former fan icon, an anniversary rematch may be the very thing that keeps his legacy and hopes alive. It may also kill him outright.
Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Ernest "The Cat" Miller
(Fox Searchlight; US theatrical: 17 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 16 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
Taking its tone from Rod Serling’s memorable Requiem for a Heavyweight while utilizing a breathtaking neo-realistic approach, Darren Aronofsky’s sensational The Wrestler marks a major comeback for Mickey Rourke and ‘70s style filmmaking in general. Offering up characters of quiet charms and deep emotional pain and a cinema verite cinematography that frequently feels like a documentary, this is a tour de force of acting, directing, and stripped down motion picture passion. It’s rare when a film can make you feel such emotional extremes. On the one hand, the story of The Ram’s rise and fall is truly heartbreaking, helped in no small part by Rourke’s Oscar worthy performance. But there is so much more going on here, from the concept of a career lost long ago to an attempt at redemption that almost anyone can relate to. It makes for a truly remarkable entertainment experience.
It’s impossible to explain how amazing Rourke is here. Bulked up beyond recognition, wearing his own battle spoils from a decade of debauchery and failed plastic surgery, he stands as a warning to anyone who thinks the acting profession is all red carpets and E! News Daily. Sure, most of the damage is of the self-destructive and inflicted variety, but in the chew ‘em up and spit them out world of Hollywood, that someone like he survived is stunning enough. Now take The Ram’s similarly styled story - early instant fame, a life in pursuit of ever increasing success (and the harmful perks that come with same), the inability to recognize the need to slow down, a current situation marked by dishonesty and despair. Together, this amalgamation of persona and performance marks the kind cinematic synergy that makes movies truly magic.
But amazingly enough, he’s not the only great thing here. Proving to those who questioned her Academy Award for My Cousin Vinny, Marisa Tomei continues her own reclamation of her career (after last year’s similarly spectacular Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) with her turn as sensible stripper Cassidy. While she definitely shows off her incredible post-40 physique, there’s a naturalness and nurturing quality to her character that’s warm and inviting. As the other main female in his life, Evan Rachel Wood is an interesting enigma as The Ram’s abandoned daughter, Stephanie. Though she only has a few scenes here, the combination of hurt and longing is more than memorable. There is one moment in particular where her little girl feelings are forced to confront a man whose still capable of great compassion - and great disappointment. It’s just one of several sensational scenes.
Clearly, working outside his comfort zone inspired Aronofsky. Known for his flashy, in your face directorial flare, The Wrestler is miles away from his formalized work on such films as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain. Instead of going for bright lights and auteur-ish bravado, Aronofsky strives for authenticity. The background is loaded with former and current wrestling notables, and when the supposedly “scripted” elements of each match are discussed, there’s no elaborate storyline or set-up. A quick shorthand regarding moves and potential weaponry (including barbed wire and a stapler!?!?) is all these seasoned veterans need. The matches are magnificent, each one presented in a unique and uncompromising manner. Even better, Aronofksy sticks around to show the aftermath - the blood, the sweat, the stitches, and the wholly professional clannishness and camaraderie.
There may be those who think the medical crisis subplot is to formulaic and manipulative for this kind of movie, and when the advertised rematch turns into a kind of Death of a Salesman send-off (though no clear resolution, good or bad, is offered), some may sense a bit of a heavy hand on the script (expertly put together by former Onion scribe Robert Siegel). But thanks to Rourke’s sensitive, well observed turn, the rest of the dominating cast, and Aronofsky’s courageousness and artistic risk taking, The Wrestler overcomes all clichés to redefine the sports film for a post-millennial audience raised on the very subject being explored. It may be hard for some to watch their heroes take a fall, but until you reach the bottom, there’s no way to possibly come back up.
As he stalks the counter behind the deli of the grocery store where he works at, desperately trying to avoid recognition while serving the customers with the kind of charm and grace that made him a wrestling champion, Randy “The Ram” Robinson is like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim - unstuck in time and having difficulty dealing with the passage of same. There’s only one place he wants to be and he can never really return there. Still, the lure of the crowd is unnerving to those addicted to its trappings. As the last gasp of someone who has had more than a few of those life leaking final breaths, The Ram is nearing the end. Thanks to this sensational motion picture, we have the opportunity to watch him struggle yet again…at least for as long as it lasts.