Masterful struggle: From its star to its surroundings, ‘Wrestler’ keeps it raw and real
Jan. 9, 2009, Austin American-Statesman
Mickey Rourke, bless his heart, looks like a big basted bird in “The Wrestler,” a wincing character study of a macho man whose life’s passion has skidded to its expiration date. Rourke’s professional wrestler — a tights-and-tattoos brand of brawler — isn’t going down easily, though, and it’s this internal battle, not the cringingly theatrical ones in the smack-thud ring, that Darren Aronofsky’s brutal yet remarkably sensitive character study is about.
Rourke gleams with blood and sweat through much of the movie, and he radiates a bizarre, battered physicality that almost seems fabricated from old rubber. He’s Randy “the Ram” Robinson, a wrestling icon coming off the high of his glory years in the 1980s, when he was a superstar bone-cruncher, vanquishing the likes of the Ayatollah and other garishly named combatants. Bronzed and bulging on steroids, with a puffy, engorged face, Rourke’s Ram looks chiseled from red clay, like the less sunburned brother of Hellboy.
The film opens in a blast of hard-rock nostalgia, with vintage posters of the Ram’s classic bouts streaming by to the throb of Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health (Bang Your Head).” Then it goes dark and the screen portentously reads: “Twenty years later.”
Before it lights up again, you hear a wheezy, phlegm-larded cough, the requiem for a beaten and lonely man. The camera pans in on Rourke, sitting sweaty, head down, in an empty locker room. He’s just finished a bout, which has taken all he has. He’s the pugilist at rest, a self-styled warrior who has endured a life of blows and bloodletting in the name of gladiatorial entertainment.
The shot shimmers with melancholy beauty, bathed in fluorescent lights and cementing right there the movie’s soul-stripping concerns.
So much of Rourke’s resigned and furrowed performance, heralded as the actor’s unlikely comeback, emanates from his flamboyant appearance. His look reveals volumes about the character: the paid-for tan and spangly spandex pants; the steroidal heft and the peroxided, Portuguese man-of-war hair cascading down his back. These are the trappings of showbiz, choreographed wrestling included, and the traps of maintaining high-voltage vanity. (The Ram even drives an old Dodge Ram van. He clings to that kind of chintzy pride.)
But vanity’s a dicey addiction for a guy in his mid-50s who uses his body as a weapon. He’s dented, perforated and creaky. His ticker is on the blink. He wears a chunky yellow hearing aid, an exquisite touch by the filmmakers that telegraphs a violent past and a compromised present.
Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert Siegel (a former writer for The Onion) give Randy a parallel character in the aging stripper Cassidy, played with bruised spunk by Marisa Tomei. Both work jobs that trade in glamour and that are allergic to age. Her fine looks have scarcely dimmed, but customers are starting to notice the crow’s feet on this 40-ish mother trying to fulfill frat-boy fantasies. Randy likes her a lot.
A smallish, human-scale drama, “The Wrestler” moans with melancholy, if never too loudly. It’s sharp enough to catch the humor of life, even when it’s down, and to latch on to even the flimsiest of hopes. It knows how people operate, and it’s keenly attuned to place, presenting desolate pockets of blue-collar New Jersey like a dead-end tundra where old wrestlers go to die. Alongside the iffy romance with Cassidy, Randy also is thrown an estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), who doesn’t know how to hate him and a demeaning day job that requires a ghastly hair net.
The film also nails the crazy cartoon fury of professional wrestling, which leapfrogs sport and flourishes into an absurd theater of pain that runs on fictional rivalries and blueprinted grudges. Metal chairs bonk heads, plate-glass shatters across torsos, bodies are pile-driven into coils of barbed-wire. Aronofsky keeps it live and raw in the ring, with hand-held cameras chasing the frenzy. There’s none of the ethereal, slo-mo grandeur of the boxing matches in “Raging Bull,” just smashing, trashing whiplash.
With a cast of hulking real-life wrestlers, the pre-fight parlance between brawlers smacks of truth. “I’ll give you a low blow, follow-up with a bulldog,” Randy’s opponent tells him as they strategize backstage. Or my favorite, which quivers with sadistic humor: “Are you cool with the staple gun?”
At moments like this, the film edges toward docu-realism. Aronofsky, perhaps chastened after the failure of his flatulent fantasy “The Fountain,” shoots with economy and a plainspoken indie grain that’s conducive to the straight-forward story of loss and redemption so familiar in the sports drama.
Of course, what makes the movie work as well as it does, enlisting our empathy with a big heart and emotional sobriety, is Rourke playing a role that so uncannily reflects his acting career. Like the Ram’s, Rourke’s winning streak — “Diner,” “Pope of Greenwich Village,” “Body Heat,” “Barfly” — took place in the ’80s. Rourke then, in tabloid argot, flipped. His movies got worse to dreadful, their toxic gasses killing his career.
“The Wrestler” reeks of regret and curdled dreams, but its star, in a searingly tender performance, fights hard against the dying of the klieg lights. Maybe that’s why the film wears its valedictory air so comfortably.