The Wrestler, the newest film by Darren Aronofsky, stars Mickey Rourke in a Golden Globe-nominated performance as washed-up '80s wrestler Randy Robinson. Did Rourke body-slam this role to movie history? Reviews, after jump.
Aronofsky has been one of the few American directors whose movies upset the complacency of indie cinema. Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain were demanding and rewarding in various ways: the first wacko, the second gritty, the third sumptuously romantic, and all marvelously dense with imagery. So the big surprise in The Wrestler is that it's visually inert. Aronofsky's main camera habit is to follow Randy, just his imposing back, as he trudges through corridors toward another fight. (Martin Scorsese virtually patented that shot in Raging Bull and Goodfellas.) The trope does pay off later in the film, when the camera trails the briefly retired Randy down the stairs to his new job, behind a deli counter. But Aronofsky's main contribution was to lion-tame a jolting performance out of a forgotten hero.
Rourke gives the performance of his life. Tough, clueless and more self-aware than he lets on, Randy is excruciatingly sad. When he describes himself as "an old, broken-down piece of meat," your heart aches for him.
Randy's relationships with these two women are what set The Wrestler (sparely scripted by Robert Siegel) apart from your standard sports-comeback drama. Wood has definitively made the jump from interesting child star to accomplished adult actress. Though hers is the most underwritten of the three main characters, she shines in her few scenes as the wounded, rageful daughter. And amid all the (granted well-earned) fuss about Rourke's comeback, I hope Marisa Tomei won't be overlooked for what I consider the single best female performance of the year, supporting or otherwise. She's smart, earthy, and astonishingly real in a role that could have foundered in cheap sentimentality. And if we're going to marvel at Rourke's sculpted (and no doubt hormonally augmented) 56-year-old form, how about Tomei's 44-year-old body pole-dancing in a G-string?
This is a case where an actor makes the difference. Mickey Rourke was once among our most charismatic leading men: alert, wittily self-contained (he always seemed to be smiling at a private joke), with a high but seductive voice. Whatever the hell he did to himself, it worked for Sin City, in which the makeup for his monster-man avenger Marv brought out the freakish poetry in his distended physiognomy. In The Wrestler, his face has that poetry without the makeup. Rourke has long blond hair that makes him look like a battered lion, and his tight, swollen mask makes Randy’s struggle to bare his soul even more momentous. It’s dumb, it’s outlandish, but smashing other people’s heads and getting his own smashed back really does complete him.
Certain movies about losers have a special, desperately moving appeal. By showing us men whose lives have fallen dramatically short of their dreams, they speak to — and for — all of us. Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, with Mickey Rourke as a broken-down professional wrestling star still clinging to his glory days from the 1980s, could touch a chord in audiences the way On the Waterfront and Rocky did. It has that kind of lyrical humanity. Aronofsky doesn't speak a sentimental cinematic language. Shooting in a grainy, bare-bones naturalistic style, full of jump cuts and raw light and a handheld camera whooshing about, the director of Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain now strips away all frills, tapping a classic Hollywood myth — a has-been looking for redemption — and, at the same time, transcending that myth. The Wrestler is like Rocky made by the Scorsese of Mean Streets. It's the rare movie fairy tale that's also a bravura work of art.
It’s a plot so familiar it borders on cliché, and elements of everything from Champion to Million Dollar Baby are inescapable. But there’s no denying Aronofsky’s commitment (gone are all traces of arty self-indulgence that have been his trademarks in junk like The Fountain); the tough script by Robert D. Siegel, which never begs pity for its downbeat characters; and especially Mickey Rourke’s raw, naked passion, which makes his galvanizing performance a real awards contender, and provides a jump-start for a career with a dead transmission.
What Rourke offers us, in short, is not just a comeback performance but something much rarer: a rounded, raddled portrait of a good man. Suddenly, there it is again—the charm, the anxious modesty, the never-distant hint of wrath, the teen-age smiles, and all the other virtues of a winner. No wonder people warmed to Randy Robinson twenty years ago. I felt the same about Mickey Rourke, and I still do.
Whatever Aronofsky did — or didn't — do, Rourke's performance comes off beautifully. "The Wrestler" may not be the "best" Aronofsky movie in any technical sense. But the director clearly feels a great deal of tenderness toward his lead character, without ever emasculating him, and Rourke's performance blossoms and thrives within that affectionate framework. Rourke's face looks a little strange: He appears to have had some plastic surgery, which has made his features look both a little too fine and a little too blurred, compared with the Rourke we used to know. But that face hasn't lost any of its expressiveness. Rourke's performance will be praised, rightly enough, for the way he pushes his characterization of Randy right over the edge of our expectations. But what I love most about Rourke's performance are the small gestures, the little things he does probably without even thinking. The way, for example, Randy delicately places his hearing aid (this guy has clearly sustained so many injuries over the course of his career, you wonder how any of his parts still work) on the bedside table in his trailer, before going to sleep.
Another actor could have played this wreck for easy pathos—a sad-sack giant in decline. We've seen that act before. But Rourke, underplaying beautifully, gives him a tough, tender humor that skirts the usual clichés of aging gladiators that go back beyond "Requiem for a Heavyweight" all the way to Wallace Beery. There's none of the actorish self-indulgence, that taint of narcissism, that sometimes marred Rourke's earlier performances. It's hard at times to even imagine this is the same guy who was the Hot New Thing in "Diner" and "Rumble Fish," his brooding intensity evoking the usual James Dean references, or the lounge lizard who specialized in soft-core erotica ("9 ½ Weeks" and "Wild Orchid"). Rourke, macho man extraordinaire, disparaged the acting life for its suggestion of "femininity" and took up a boxing career to shore up his self-esteem. He seems to have poured all those demons into this part and emerged with a new sense of himself as an actor. When screen acting is this pure and simple, it doesn't look like acting at all.
Although the film teeters on the brink of sentimentality, it never topples into the slush, and this is a tribute to the rigorous direction as well as the astringent performances. Still, there are mawkish moments: When Rourke and Wood visit an abandoned beachside emporium, a tear trickles down his cheek as he pleads for her love. "Wrestler" oscillates between hard-edged naturalism and stock melodrama but ends on an understated note of melancholy that seems just right.
Talk about comebacks. After many years in the wilderness and being considered MIA professionally, Mickey Rourke, just like the washed-up character he plays, attempts a return to the big show in "The Wrestler." Not only does he pull it off, but Rourke creates a galvanizing, humorous, deeply moving portrait that instantly takes its place among the great, iconic screen performances. An elemental story simply and brilliantly told, Darren Aronofsky's fourth feature is a winner from every possible angle, although it will require deft handling by a smart distributor to overcome public preconceptions about Rourke, the subject matter and the nature of the film.
'The Wrestler' opens today in limited release.