Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood;
More than a year after its premiere at the 2008 Venice Film Festival, and seven months since its star was controversially overlooked for an Oscar, Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler finally hits Slovak cinemas this week, a welcome extension to the life of a movie about human frailty and the ravages of time.
This is the film in which the former Hollywood wild-man Mickey Rourke body-slammed himself back into our consciousness, squeezing his steroid-bolstered frame into the spandex leggings of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a former titan of the wrestling ring reduced to a second life as trailer park denizen, supermarket assistant and human pin-board for the staple-guns and barbed wire of the regional wrestling circuit.
Randy is good in every role, but his quest is for greatness. Although he happily spars with local kids and brings rare effervescence to the serving of maple-glazed ham, his tortured body, on show these days only at packed school gymnasiums across wintry New Jersey, is on the point of collapse. He is also estranged from his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), and impotently infatuated by Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a dancer in a low-down strip joint. His torso bears the scars of a warrior, but his face shows the anguish of the washed up. “I’m an old broken down piece of meat,” he laments. “And I’m alone.”
It is not quite clear how The Ram descended to his current state, but Aronofsky hints that timing had never been Randy’s strong suit. His glory days were the 1980s, too early for the big-money wrestling boom, and these days he is mostly too late – with rent and with attention for his family as he craves clemency for prior neglect. Aronofsky’s handheld camera trudges behind Randy’s flowing mane for much of the piece, but it’s when it swings in front that the truth is brought starkly into focus. Randy’s golden locks and tan both come from a bottle, his muscles from the drugs he ingests and even some of the dramatic cuts to his face are self inflicted: he carries a concealed razor into the ring to encourage the blood.
For all the artifice of his character’s profession, however, this is a formidable physical performance from Rourke, in which even gory grandeur is rendered modestly authentic. A former boxer, turned actor, turned establishment pariah, The Wrestler carried Rourke’s own hopes for rehabilitation. Ultimately he missed out on the Oscar to Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk, but Randy the Ram is not so much Rourke’s career-defining role as a moment of catch up; the first time a character has been created to match his brute vulnerability.
Tomei too is excellent, and no less physically remarkable. She is given less emotional territory to explore than the star, but she matches Rourke’s authenticity, again in the skin of a character whose profession demands pretense. The comparison of the Ram attempting to put his decaying body through the punishing regime of a pro wrestler is terrifically pitched against that of the aging stripper—both cling onto spectacular physiques despite advancing years, but each knows that time tends to win out. When we first encounter Cassidy, she is being heckled over her age by drunk strip-club punters. Similarly Randy has grown to endure the snipes: “What’s the matter, did they raise the price of tights?” sneers Randy’s supermarket boss as he seeks additional shifts to pay the bills.
Such taunts are casually swatted aside, and the movie’s strength is in its shameless (and sometimes obvious) insistence that we penetrate these façades. Bodies built either to grapple in broken glass or to be wrapped naked around a pole can also contain a heart that can yearn and break.
But this is not a film about either stripping or wrestling. It is instead a traditional yarn about former hell-raisers passing through middle age, learning that the damage wrought from a lifetime of delinquency cannot easily be salved. There is a familiar search here for the tying of loose ends, for forgiveness and belated understanding. And although our wrestler, and indeed The Wrestler, occasionally comes close to bathing its wounds in a saccharine solution, there is always more barbed wire, more staples and razor blades to tear them open anew.