The Wrestler Darren Aronofsky
All of the hype and the Oscar nomination Mickey Rourke garnered for his performance in The Wrestler are entirely on point and evident onscreen. Without repeating too much of this brilliant actor's near-tragic backstory and history of talent squanderage and blatantly idiotic pursuits in the realm of bloodsport and hard living, it would be apparent to anybody seeing this without any foreknowledge of Rourke's checkered past that this is an amazing performer who, on a very deep level, nails the look and internal despair of a washed-up athletic performer struggling to define his life after the ring. There is not a false note in the performances here, from real life wrestlers enacting an honest recreation of their circuit to talented actors like Todd Barry and Evan Rachel Wood lending truth to small roles that may have been caricatured cameos. Marisa Tomei deserves particular notice. The former light ingenue is probably more beautiful now with a few wrinkles and the crushing weight of life behind her. She matches Rourke in her scenes with him as what might seem like (and, really, is) a stock character type, the stripper with heart. Their connection in this movie transcends the real-life stereotypes they play, as they are both past-their-prime physical performers that mortality and aging are stalking with a vengeance. She's about ten years younger and not as close to crisis point as Rourke's titular Wrestler, but it is pragmatically clear that things aren't getting better for these two in their chosen professions.
After spending years working to make his tepidly received masterpiece The Fountain, one gets the feeling that Aronofsky wanted to get back to a smaller scale and just quickly make a heartfelt movie. Usually a stylistic savaant full of tricks bordering on show-off, Aronofsky keeps the images and settings here real and believable, using experienced documentary cinematographer Maryse Alberti (Taxi To The Darkside) to capture skillful, non-distracting handheld shots of his characters. I would hate it if Aronofsky never aspired to the virtuoso filmatism of Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain, but the deceptively canny docu-realism of The Wrestler is perfect to convey the story of a former celebrity to a rabid cult of fans reduced to a New Jersey trailer park substinence. The flashy style we've grown accustomed to from Aronofsky would have been more appropriate for a story about protagonist Randy The Ram's '80s peak, here just suggested in perfect set dressing and the flashes we get of people who recognize him such as American Legion autograph hounds and an asshole at the grocery store Rourke now primarily works at who doesn't know when to let it go.
The Wrestler was written by a former editor for "The Onion", Robert Siegel, and it is a promising debut for him (discounting the ill-fated Onion Movie, which he has long disowned). The Wrestler is not at all a comedy, but in its honest character observations, it is not afraid to be funny. Aronofsky admitted to shearing most of the inessential pop culture dialog from the original script, but a few poignant and telling referents remain. The soundtrack is clogged with '80s hair metal that perfectly identifies the culture the characters hopelessly reminisce about (the great song Bruce Sprinsteen wrote for the film plays over the credits), and there is a telling scene where Rourke blames "that pussy Cobain" for ruining rock music and Tomei agrees heartily ("I know, like, what's wrong with wanting to have a good time?"). One of the many humble but poignant scenes has Rourke calling a local kid at the trailer park into his place to play a vintage Nintendo Entertainment System. As they play a cartridge the Ram starred in in the '80s, the kid yammers about "Call of Duty 4" and has to awkwardly leave as Rourke wants to just keep playing games that remind him of his glory days. Siegel's story also has a clear affection for the material, such that he represents it in clear details that do not blink from the unsavory aspects and depressing trajectory. The man did his homework.
While the practical craftsmanship on the acting, directing, and writing fronts is visible throughout, and the film holds interest effortlessly with its unadorned storytelling (there is literally not an irrelevant scene here in telling a fascinating story), The Wrestler is not the kind of movie that frequently slams you upside the head with its brilliance. The power here is in an accumulation of honestly earned emotions and real, believable situations. By the climax, which superficially follows the "big fight" sports movie cliche but completely sells it as real, one can't help but feel hearbroken for Rourke. Regular Aronofsky composer Clint Mansell contributes another excellent score that is so unobtrusive here to be almost impercievable (not so much as Carter Burwell's mysterious contributions to No Country For Old Men, but along the same lines). All of these components combine to pack a wallop by the time the credits roll. I was left moved, shaken, and deeply sympathetic to The Wrestler.24 January, 2009 - 21:10 — George Booker