Exquisite Agony

2008-12-17 (Limited release)

In Darren Aronofsky’s punishing The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke looks like a thousand miles of rough road, and that’s when he’s having a good day. His face is puffy and lined with the latticework of tiny scars that are the badge of the pro wrestler (never know when you might have to cut yourself with a razor in order to get the blood flowing for the audience). Rourke’s body is a battered hulk still roped with muscle but clearly on the verge of giving way; one more serious injury and the whole thing will be quits. Tellingly, “Job” is tattooed on one finger. It’s the eyes, though, that really shine with the ruin of his wrecked life.

As Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Rourke is the quintessential has-been. For a glorious period back in the ’80s, Robinson was a wrestling star. By the time we catch up with Robinson, however, the days of selling out headlining shows at Madison Square Garden to battle his rival, an Iron Sheik-type villain known as The Ayatollah, are long gone. These days Robinson lives in a broken-down trailer and grinds away on the small-time circuit, wrestling in gymnasiums and rented halls to audiences of a few dozen people eager to see him get whacked over the head with a folding chair or nailed with a staple gun.

Rourke’s Robinson has a gentle-giant quality that’s almost instantly heartbreaking. Just seeing the worn-out warrior hauling his little rolling suitcase into yet another grimy hall for another penny-ante match says far more than any “I had it all” monologue could. By the time Robinson is forced to work at a deli counter, the film has become a classic weepie, just one with brutally blood-spattered wrestling scenes.

But Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay is hell-bent on making the audience pay for its sympathy, inserting constant reminders of why exactly this man fell from grace. When Robinson tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), she stares him down with such withering contempt that lesser men would simply dissolve in shame. For every scene where Robinson maintains a slight edge of happiness in his grey, threadbare, Jersey existence (as in the one where he plays with the neighborhood kids just to have somebody around), there is one where he monumentally screws it all up again.

Fittingly for a film about a man who can’t escape the allure of his glorious past, when thousands gasped as he leapt from the turnbuckles, The Wrestler is flooded with pop-cultural detritus, from the ancient video game starring Robinson himself that he keeps in his trailer to the hair metal on constant rotation on the soundtrack and in Robinson’s van. (Robinson memorably holds forth in a bar about how much better music was in the ’80s, until “that pussy Cobain came along and ruined everything.”) Clearly, even the casting of Rourke, who saw his high point come and go in the ’80s, is a nod to a bygone time.

Write-ups about the film emphasize how great it is that Rourke was given a shot at a comeback by director Aronofsky. But make no mistake, in the final reckoning it was Rourke who was giving Aronofsky another chance. By putting himself through this tragic meat-grinder of a film, Rourke provides Aronofsky a shot at returning to basics. Remember that this is a director who had only completed one feature since 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, and that was The Fountain, a lugubrious ode to trashy mysticism and painful failure that would have derailed lesser director’s careers. With The Wrestler, Aronofsky seems to be putting himself through the paces just as much as he supposedly put Rourke through his.

Here, Aronofsky doesn’t resort to any of the showoff techniques that made his earlier reputation. Instead, he produced a superbly-acted stripped-down take on a classic sad-sack former champ script that wouldn’t have been out of place in ’40s Hollywood (only then it would have been about a heavyweight boxer). Aronofsky applies his love of process study — recall how carefully Requiem investigated the machinations of its addicts looking to score — to the half-sport, half-art of wrestling. The camera lingers on the wrestlers (many of whom appear to be the real thing) carefully working out their routines before matches, looking like so many steroid-pumped choreographers, before watching them artfully pretend to destroy each other. More than anything, though, Aronofsky studies the manner and method of Robinson’s self-destruction with the implacability of an anthropologist; no bad decision, no flinch of shame goes unnoticed.

Between Aronofsky’s confident direction the material and Rourke’s incomparably brave and wounded performance, by the film’s conclusion it’s all you can do to continue watching the screen without having to peek through your fingers. It is also hard to shake the feeling that the film is little more than a scrupulously-controlled exercise in humiliation and expurgation, where both artists — Aronofsky and Rourke — look to cleanse themselves of past excesses with their tale of transcendent pain.

The Wrestler – Trailer

You might have to go back to Claude Laydu in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest to see an actor undergoing such exquisite anguish as Will Smith does in Gabriele Muccino’s Seven Pounds. There is suffering and there is suffering. And then there is the suffering evinced by Smith in this film, where he seems to not so much be a guy, apparently widowed and trying to make up for something in his past, but some sort of secular martyr, gasping and bleeding his way through the Stations of the Cross. He plays a man who could conceivably look at The Wrestler and think: Hey, his life’s not so bad.

A film that will leave some convulsed in tears and others rocking with laughter, Seven Pounds is more suffused with suffering than just about any other Hollywood release in recent memory. It’s a morality tale so ludicrous in concept and yet so absolutely surehanded in its delivery that it very nearly makes one a believer that such a thing would be possible. Muccino, directing a portentous script by sitcom scribe Grant Nieporte, has a tough task at hand, with a story that requires such absolute suspension of disbelief that even a momentary relapse into reality would make the whole thing come apart. Fortunately for Muccino, he’s got Smith, whom he directed previously in The Pursuit of Happyness and who turns in possibly the best performance of his career.

Like any good religious allegory, Seven Pounds withholds the whole story until the right moment, teasing the audience along with only glimpses at the truth. So while one watches Smith going through the paces as Ben Thomas, Internal Revenue Service agent, it’s obvious the whole time that something quite odd is going on. For one, how is he getting away with visiting all these seemingly random people and trying to help them? Does the IRS have a very flexible work-from-home policy? And why are we occasionally shown flashbacks of Ben with a woman who appears to be his wife, and scenes where he’s clearly not an IRS agent but an aeronautics engineer?

Ben has a cohort of sorts, Dan — a friend played with surprising passion by Barry Pepper — who is providing him with names and background information. There’s also a brother (Michael Early) desperate to get back in touch with Ben. But mostly the only thing that we have to go on here in order to explain what’s happening is Ben’s face, and it’s a study in utter agony. On the one hand, he seems to be doing the work of the angels, finding worthy people in bad circumstances and devising intricate ways of assisting; he even finds a sort of love along the way, in the form of the terminally ill beauty played by a soulful Rosario Dawson (also easily doing the best work of her career). But all those good works provide no relief to the inner torment that reads all too clearly on Ben’s deadened visage.

Besides spending the film looking as though he were about to collapse in spiritual exhaustion, Smith does an uncanny job here with his smile. Not the beaming, I Want to Buy the World a Coke lighthouse grin that he dazzles audiences with on Oprah, but a flattened and impenetrable thing that recalls the mask-like look he used to great effect in Six Degrees of Separation. It’s a smile that doesn’t let anybody in.

It would be a lie to say that there isn’t something exhilarating in the tear-choked torment of Seven Pounds, not to mention an exhaustive relief when the full extent of Ben’s plan comes into view. Much like the religious narratives of sacrifice and worthy suffering that it emulates so well, the film wants to batter and then heal, even if doing so requires an unbelievably complicated series of events that strain credulity to its snapping point. But it would also be a lie to say that there isn’t also something shamelessly manipulative in the way the film (skillfully or not) strums each of its heartbreaking chords. If there were a way to do a secular passion play, this would be it.