The Wrestler is a true tragedy. It aims to bruise the soul and succeeds, because it features a performance by star Mickey Rourke that grounds the movie so firmly, pushing through the story's inherent melodrama to present a person an audience can identify with. Marisa Tomei (to a lesser extent) and Evan Rachel Wood (to a larger extent) can't quite match Rourke's phenomenal effectiveness, but it doesn't matter. Rourke, and Rourke alone defines The Wrestler, and it is the best movie of 2008.
Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Rourke) lived the good life in the 1980's, but fame is fickle, and you only get fifteen minutes. Wrestling on a local circuit, he scrapes enough together to keep the locks off his trailer (most nights), and takes performance enhancers to keep things running, which is good enough. A promoter suggests that Randy give the fans a taste of the glory days with a 20th anniversary rematch between "The Ram" and his nemesis The Ayatollah. Randy agrees, but only days later, after an "extreme" match (complete with staple guns and barbed wire), Randy collapses. Bad news. He is told he must stop wrestling, to save his failing heart. "Doc, I'm a professional wrestler," Randy says. "That's not a good idea," the doctor replies.
Randy leaves the wrestling circuit and gets a normal job behind the deli counter of a Wal-Mart, but he all he can see in his future is his dignity echoing pitifully in a dingy rec hall center filled with other ex-champs and has-beens selling autographs for seven dollars apiece. There is a future behind the deli counter, a future that includes his estranged daughter (Wood) and a stripper named Cassidy he might be happy with (Tomei), but the call of the ring and Randy's destructive nature look to undo him. Darren Aronofksy's direction is almost despairing; it's hard to not feel what Randy feels with the cold, clinical handheld look that Aronofsky has chosen.
Rourke's performance is heartbreaking. As an audience member, you get to see both the good and bad sides of Randy, and Rourke makes you want to root for him the same way one watches an accident happening in slow motion. He's also in sync with the direction in a way that never calls attention to itself; it really is an Oscar-worthy performance. Tomei is charming, but guarded, reluctant to let her desire to see Randy be happy show through. It shows through anyway. The only weak link is Evan Rachel Wood, who does what she can, but is given a fairly thankless role, the one sour note in Robert Siegel's sharply observed screenplay. Once again, Rourke sustains the movie through the rough patches.
There is a saying: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change." Randy "The Ram" Robinson does not have serenity. It is forever at odds with his personality. He is destructive, emotionally and physically, in and out of the ring. Randy is a wrestler at heart, and his heart can't take it. If that isn't tragic, what is? Randy makes an impassioned speech near the end of the movie to a crowd of his biggest fans, and their fervor brings him to life. I imagine a magazine might have asked him, early in his career, if he wanted to go out swinging. He'd probably have said yes, but The Wrestler knows that going out swinging is in his blood.
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