Film fans seeking to appreciate the remarkable range of Mickey Rourke, who plays aging wrestler Randy “The Ram” Ramsinski in Darren Arnofsky’s The Wrestler, should view Barry Levinson’s classic debut Diner and note Rourke’s charming performance as Boogie, the charismatic sweet talker always prepared with an anecdote and a wry, knowing smile. Now, Rourke’s face has traded its fresh, handsome luster for lines, scars and wrinkles galore. In fact, Rourke looks like he can now almost play his character in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, Marv without make up. Of course a weathered countenance does not a great performance make. Rather it is Rourke’s protean talents and his aforementioned incredible range. Rourke can effortlessly createpathos for Randy, by suggesting the simplicity and purity at the heart of the character yet still hint at a lost intelligence. His Randy is a man seeking lost glory who is willing to man the deli counter at ACME and endure all the indignities that entails for his rapidly fading dream. He is an oddly gentle character, preferring to inflict pain upon himself rather than others. He tells people he’s alone and washed up but does not beg for their pity. Rourke imbues Randy with far too much grace for that.
The film, though centered on Randy’s turbulent personal and professional lives, is driven by the juxtaposition between Randy and an aging stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). The implication being that they play similar roles in show business, displaying their bodies and their souls in return for meager compensation and adoration. Unfortunately for them, they are largely becoming obsolete and unnecessary. While her colleagues are gyrating to hip hop, Cassidy is stripping to classic metal. Randy enters to the ring greeted by Guns N Roses. The comedic highlight of the film is a joint rant on how much the 90s sucked. Their stumbling relationship is simultaneously beautiful and painful to watch. Rourke’s easy charm, most evident in his terrible dancing to his adored hair metal, combined with the wounded humanity he exudes with every teary glance, bring unexpected resonance to an otherwise cliched courtship. Likewise, Randy’s reconciliation with his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) works in the larger context of the film, simply because it refuses to take the easy way out, unflinching in its simple, messy honesty.
That last phrase could apply to Arnofsky’s work in the film as well. Abandoning the expressive, technically masterful style of previous films such as Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, Arnofsky shoots for subtly drawn realism and succeeds. Eschewing metaphorical visual odysseys rife with a variety of lenses and surrealist effects, Arnofsky empathetically frames Rourke from behind with a shaky, imperfect handheld camera. Using largely close ups, the camera generally remains trained on Rourke, refusing to miss a second of his tour de force as it brings the viewer directly into contact with every cut, crushing blow and searing staple. Essentially, Arnofsky filmed the movie the way Randy talks, starkly, sweetly and bluntly. The Wrestler finds poetry in its titular subject’s life without artifice or cynical calculation, a fact that makes it a rarity among Hollywood biopics and easily of the finest films of the year.
Do not doubt The Wrestler‘s ambitions. A fine film, steeped in the depression of life we all know.