The Wrestler has a lot of fine qualities, but more than anything, it is unexpected. We didn't expect that an egghead stylist like Darren Aronofsky had a film this low-key and tender in him. We didn't expect that Mickey Rourke had a performance with this kind of subtlety and depth in him, nor did we expect that the "stripper with a heart of gold" could still be made to play, much less with the brilliance with which Marisa Tomei pulls it off. And we didn't expect that we could be made to care so very much about a sport as superficially silly as professional wrestling.
Rourke, in a career-best performance, plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a pro wrestling superstar back in the 1980s. But wrestlers aren't renowned for aging gracefully, and Randy has fallen on pretty hard times, beating up his 'roid-enhanced body for small crowds at poorly organized matches in rec centers and high school gyms. He's still idolized by the old fans, but their numbers are dwindling (as evidenced by the low attendance at small autograph shows), so he works in the loading dock of a grocery store to pay the rent on his small trailer and pay for the drugs that keep his muscles bulging.
The film isn't a treatise on the evils of steroids, however; they're just there, a fact of his life. Nor does it get too wrapped up in the question of whether wrestling is "fake". We see the wrestlers talking beforehand, plotting out their moves, but that's the structure--they're taking hard hits in there, and shedding real blood. In their scrappy, messy, off-the-cuff photography, the wrestling bouts are the polar opposite of the boxing matches in Raging Bull, but the question they pose is the same: Who would subject themselves to this kind of pain? And the answer, again, is someone who is seeking punishment.
Randy's sins are mostly tied to his daughter Samantha (Evan Rachel Wood), who he abandoned years before; their relationship is a problem he can't figure out how to fix. He gets some help from Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper who he harbors a crush on. She likes him, but can't decide how much, or how much is smart. But she becomes someone to lean on after a crippling heart attack threatens to stop him from doing the one thing he knows how to do.
I'm not sure how accurate The Wrestler is, but it certainly feels authentic, as if it knows its world from the inside out. The tiny details (the pre-show "scripting", the locker room stitching, the skeezy promoters) feel real, though all are grounded in Rourke's extraordinary performance. This really is a tremendous piece of work, deeply felt and entirely convincing, worthy of this Oscar buzz it's generating (though it will hopefully not overshadow Tomei's equally impressive turn).
Aronofsky really is a fine filmmaker; his Pi was a remarkable achievement (particularly for its miniscule budget), and Requiem For A Dream remains one of the most harrowing experiences I've ever had at the movies. The Fountain was a stumble, yes, but an infinitely fascinating one, guilty of many excesses but certainly not of a lack of ambition. But it is rather wonderful to watch him experiment with this kind of a grainy, low-fi aesthetic; in many ways, this is the kind of small, low-key drama that was a lot more common in the 70s and early 80s, and Aronofsky doesn't shield himself from the potential melodrama with snark or irony. In some ways, that's the biggest gamble he's ever taken.
Robert Siegel's screenplay is quiet, sad, and efficient. He doesn't shy away from his protagonist's illusions, but doesn't mock them either; this is a guy who was a star, who is still blessed with charisma and charm and a desire to please, even when he has nowhere to direct that energy. There's formula to it, yes, but Siegel's writing and Aronofsky's direction (with the help of Clint Mansell's mournful score) have the feeling of inevitability about them.
All of which leads up to the film's remarkable closing sequence. I'm not sure exactly how Aronofsky does it, but we're entirely emotionally involved, gasping, flinching, and close to tears all at the same time. The fact of the matter is that some of it is downright ridiculous, but it is done with dignity and skill. The Wrestler is a little sentimental, yes, and maybe a touch on the simplistic side. But it is also tender and sweet, and it stays with you long after you leave the theatre. Highly Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.