Listening to the buzz about The Wrestler, you might guess that it’s a movie about the resurrection of Mickey Rourke’s career. But even with the important role that Rourke’s excellent performance as has-been pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson plays in the success of the movie, it’s about far more than the meta-story of the actor’s remarkable comeback. One of the greatest strengths of Rourke’s performance is that, despite being onscreen virtually every moment of the movie, he doesn’t overpower the story or distract attention from the other actors. Director Darren Aronofsky, too, holds back a great deal, especially after the stylistic excesses of his last film, the metaphysical mess The Fountain. The Wrestler is straightforward and stripped down, its rough, naturalistic style effectively muting many of the clichés to be found in Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay.
In the hands of another director, and with an actor less connected to the character, The Wrestler could easily have been a cheesy redemption tale, but Aronofsky and Rourke both work to smooth Randy’s triumphs and tragedies into something resembling the rhythms of real life. Likewise, the visual style, full of long, handheld tracking shots and intimate close-ups, reveals the worn-out seams of even the most dramatically hackneyed moments.
The movie opens with an effective pan across years of Randy’s press clippings, establishing his history as a pro-wrestling titan, and also firmly placing it behind him. Now far past his prime and relegated to ramshackle matches in community centers, Randy still nurses dreams of stardom nearly as often as he nurses cocktails. He’s surrounded by clichés, but Aronofsky somehow makes almost all of them work: There’s the single-mom stripper with the heart of gold (Marisa Tomei), who sees beyond Randy’s tough exterior to the damaged but worthy man inside; the chance for a re-do of Randy’s most famous ’80s match, against Arab-stereotype wrestler the Ayatollah; the health problems that threaten Randy’s future as a wrestler, but that he can’t help but ignore in his pursuit of one more moment of glory; and the estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) who wails at Randy for never being around when she was growing up.
That last element never quite clicks; Wood only has a handful of scenes to establish her character as anything more than the typical resentful child, and she never manages it. But the romance between Randy and exotic dancer Cassidy proves more thoughtful and affecting than it would first appear; Aronofsky does well to spend enough moments with Cassidy apart from Randy to show how her life of putting her physical assets on display for money is remarkably similar to his. The two of them are only completely on the same wavelength once, when nostalgically discussing ’80s hair metal over beers. The rest of the time they just barely miss one another, neither providing enough of the validation and support that the other needs.
Rourke makes Randy seem like a real person and never a cartoon, and sells every hard-luck turn in the character’s life. Aronofsky too takes the oft-dismissed world of professional wrestling and peels back its layers to show an enterprise both thrilling and degrading to its participants. The Wrestler may emphasize the toll that the sport takes on its participants, but it also, down to its wonderfully ambiguous final shot, shows exactly why they’d put themselves through such harsh treatment. Like Randy’s matches, the movie hits a lot of familiar beats; like Randy himself, it gets the maximum impact out of each one.