The Wrestler

USA | 2008 | Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Logline: A middle-aged professional wrestler struggling with drug addiction, thankless gigs, and being estranged from his daughter, is told to retire by his doctor, yet he’s reluctant to throw in the towel.

This was the comeback gig that touched Hollywood’s heart - but not quite enough to win Mickey Rourke the Oscar everyone thought he should get, although it must be said Sean Penn’s performance as Harvey Milk was equally deserving. In one of those art-imitating-life curiosities, The Wrestler reflected much of what Rourke had been through in the past fifteen years; a wilderness of drug and alcohol addiction, a sport that left him dazed and battered, and a confrontational attitude that caused him to burn every bridge he crossed.

Visionary director Aronofsky originally had Nicolas Cage in mind for the role of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, but Cage out-priced himself. Legend has it Aronofsky tracked Rourke down and made him a proposal whilst prodding him in the chest, offering him a lead role, with fee deferred, but absolutely no prima donna bullshit and wastrel shenanigans, and he’d guarantee him an Academy Award nomination. Rourke wondered who the hell kind of arrogant hotshot had the balls to make demands of him like that?!

Rourke accepted, and found the initial going tough, especially with Aronofsky demanding take after take. But the director was bang on. Rourke delivered the performance of his career; a warts-and-all, heartbreaking portrait of a man lost in his own arena, a man emotionally scarred, physically wrecked, and psychologically unstable, yet a man desperate to get back on track, to right some family wrongs, and to earn the stable love of a decent woman, even if she does lap dance and strip for a living.

The Wrestler’s naturalistic production values and raw visual narrative harks back to the gritty, uncompromising stylistics of the classic filmmaking of the 1970s. In fact the whole movie almost feels like it was made and set several decades ago. The cold New Jersey climate, the cinema verite style camerawork, the method-style acting: both Rourke and Marisa Tomei, as Stephanie aka Cassidy, bare their souls, with Tomei baring quite a bit more - and looking in damn fine shape to boot! In a supporting, but pivotal role, Evan Rachel Wood, as Randy’s embittered teenage daughter, is excellent. Their scenes together, especially around the weathered, rundown boardwalk and derelict gambling palaces of Coney Island, are incredibly poignant.

This is a profound character study and one, like Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, that is determined, provocative, stubborn, and whilst uplifting, is ultimately bruised in tragedy. This is a movie that contrasts – in a clever, but understated way – grotesque brutality with touching sensitivity. The power of love doesn’t always conquer the fragility of institution.

Even if wrestling leaves you cold, you’ll definitely be stirred by this sad, beautiful tale; The Wrestler is unique, powerhouse filmmaking; the kind I didn’t think Hollywood could make anymore. And not to forget the striking poster design, hilarious glam-rock soundtrack and impressively-staged, “realistic” wrestling sequences! The Wrestler is a slam-down tour-de-force!