Friday, January 16, 2009

The Wrestler (****)

Directed and Produced by Darren Aronofsky


A lot of people think that wrestling is fake. The soap opera between the good guys and bad guys are very fake, and so is a majority of the choke holds and punches. But when you see a pro-wrestler get body-slammed off of the top step of a 14-foot ladder onto a wooden table laced with barb wire, that is real. These guys beat themselves up more than any other people on the planet. Who would want to get into this kind of job; live this kind of lifestyle? Darren Aronofsky's masterful film, The Wrestler, is a document of the kind of emotional human being that it takes to receive the punishment you see in pro-wrestling.

In the 1980's, Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was a pro-wrestling superstar, achieving the kind of success few in that profession ever see. Today, Randy is a broken down man, performing in small gymnasiums for a handful of people. He can barely pay the rent in his trailer park, and can't convince his boss at the supermarket to give him more hours. More than that, though, his body is breaking down. Not only does he need a very visible hearing aid, but he's forced to resort to steroids and other hard drugs to stay in shape. He reaches his limit, though, when he suffers a serious heart attack after a particularly grueling wrestling match.

His doctor tells him that his professional wrestling career must end if he wants to stay alive. All of the years of abuse has taken a toll, and now he must pay the price. With nothing else to do, Randy takes solace in a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). Cassidy, as well, has to deal with getting older in a profession dominated by youth, and visits from Randy are some of the few things she enjoys at her job. Cassidy convinces Randy that the main person he should be spending time with during this tormenting stretch is his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Some of the old wounds are hard to bond, but eventually Stephanie gives in to her charming father.

But alas, Randy's heart still reaches for the wrestling ring, and even life-threatening consequences can't stop his obsessive need for the spotlight again. Promoters set up a twenty-year rematch between The Ram and his arch-rival The Ayatolla (Ernest Miller), and Randy cannot turn it down. His crawl back into the professional wrestling lifestyle is equally exhilarating and heartbreaking, embracing the only place in the world where he feels worth a damn: the wrestling ring.

There is no other movie character in 2008 films that is more compelling than Randy "The Ram". Behind a career-reviving performance from Mickey Rourke, Randy is equal parts charming and sweet, as well as destructive and tormented. His quixotic compulsion to be the star of the ring is so emcompassing that his slow, inevitable decline is only redeemed by Randy's radiant accomplishment. A portrait of a man down-and-out, Rourke gives the performance of a lifetime, as we root for him even through his blunders.

The film was directed by Darren Aronofsky, the mastermind behind brilliant Requiem For a Dream and the inept The Fountain. He's certainly a fan of making fairly hard-hitting films, and while The Wrestler is not nearly as harsh as Requiem, it is relentless in shining light on the most unattractive aspects of these characters. Aronofsky really strips it down with this film, with incredibly bare cinematography, sometimes washing out the settings with light, sometimes using natural. It's an atmospheric film, not unlike Rachel Getting Married.

It's those astonishing performances though, that really makes The Wrestler a true treasure. As I've said, Rourke does career-defining work here, but is also supported by a wonderful job from Tomei. At the ripe age of 44, Tomei has never been more transparent, more beautiful, more moving. The two characters yearn for the times when they had their youth, when their beauty and strength was well enough to satisfy them in life, and when their only responsibilities in life were to themselves. The two seem on course for Oscar nominations and well-deserve it.

The Wrestler is one of the very best films of 2008, and it is too bad that the film has been kept away from general audiences for so long. As a sports film, it is not unlike Rocky with its heart for the underdog, or like On The Waterfront with a protagonist who just wishes to be a contender. It's a film about the fight for redemption, and how it affects us whether or not you are able to gain it. Randy wants to right all the wrongs that he's done in his life, sure, but more than anything he wants to be loved. He wants love from Cassidy and he wants love from Stephanie, but neither of those are even comparable for him to the love of the crowds.

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