Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson is an aged wrestler, well past his prime, aware of his failings and yet still thrives on past glories. Mickey Rourke fully inhabits the part of Randy who lives on a day-by-day basis, trying to scrape enough money together from his job at a supermarket and the occasional wrestling appearance. Randy is all wheezes, grunts and sighs but he’s a likeable guy who is kind to children and supportive of younger wrestlers who are trying to get a start in the business. Longing to be reunited with his estranged daughter his only real human connection is with a Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a lap dancer at the strip club he frequents when he can afford to.
The Wrestler provides many fascinating insights into what goes on inside and outside of the ring. All aspects of the wrestling scene are depicted from the elaborate self-grooming and prop buying to the drug taking. While it is no secret that wrestling is theatrically staged in order to create an entertaining spectacle for the crowds, The Wrestler demonstrates that this does not necessarily mean that what happens in the ring is fake. The outcomes of the bouts may be predetermined and the wrestlers do agree on the basic moves beforehand, but once the bell rings a lot of what happens is improvised and the wrestlers do hurt each other and themselves. They may cut themselves with carefully concealed razor blades but the blood that flows is real. Randy’s masochistic desire to punish his body for the approval of the crowds is an overt theme and Cassidy even jokingly calls him The Sacrificial Ram while discussing the portrayal of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s hyper-masochistic film The Passion of the Christ. One particularly powerful scene crosscuts between a brutal novelty match involving staple guns and barbed wire, to Randy getting cleaned up in the changing room afterwards. Randy plays the part of the tough, silent warrior who has just done his duty but the heartbreaking look in his eyes reveals that he is on the verge of bursting into tears.
While Mickey Rourke hasn’t stopped acting over the past 20 years, he has not had a lead role in a top-notch film since he channelled Charles Bukowski’s burnt out writer persona Henry Chinaski in Barbet Schroeder’s 1987 film Barfly. Rourke’s story is a classic Hollywood fall-from-grace tale of a once promising actor who went off the rails, became a plastic surgery causality and vanished from the radar while his peers went on to enjoy the type of success that he should have had. Giving Rourke the lead role in a film about a broken man seems almost too obvious but Rourke still delivers a powerhouse performance, reminding the audience why he was once predicted to become the next Marlon Brando.
The Wrestler is not only a comeback film for Rourke but a comeback of sorts for director Darren Aronofsky whose previous film, The Fountain, was a mess. The Wrestler is Aronofsky’s best film to date and for the most part is visually simple, although Aronofsky does frequently employ Gus Van Sant’s technique of following Rourke from behind with the camera, highlighting Randy’s alienation and vulnerability. The Wrestler is going to generate a more diverse than usual audience at the art-house cinemas and it is a film that deserves to be seen for its craftsmanship and astonishing performance by Rourke.