Mickey Rourke is a beast in The Wrestler, though, of course, one with heart and soul. His character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, used to be huge on the wrestling circuit in the ‘80s. Now, after countless mistakes and the body slams of time itself, Randy lives in a trailer (when not forced to sleep in his van when he can’t make the rent) and pops painkillers to get through the day. He works part-time at a supermarket, lugging boxes back and forth. He still wrestles; the ring and the milieu itself (the locker room, the flea-bitten conventions where he sells memorabilia) are the only places he gets any respect.
The Wrestler, written (by Robert Siegel) as an above-average washed-up-palooka tale and sensitively directed by Darren Aronofsky, will work best for you if you have any residual affection left for Mickey Rourke, who, like Randy, seemed poised to own the ‘80s but then threw it all away. On one level, the movie is an art-house Rocky Balboa, in which Rourke, like Sylvester Stallone, stages a comeback parallel to his character’s. We feel for and root for Randy (as we felt for and rooted for the elderly Rocky) for reasons that go well beyond the screenplay. Rourke napalmed his own career through arrogance, and now he returns, hungry and humble, wanting only to do the work.
Randy shambles through snowy New Jersey, finding no solace in life outside the ring. He tries to get something going with a kindly stripper (Marisa Tomei), but she doesn’t quite know what to make of him — is he into her because she’s a stripper, or what? For a while, reconciliation seems possible between Randy and his daughter, not because the script sells it so well but because Rourke brings a tender desperation to his scenes with Evan Rachel Wood, and she’d have to be made of stone not to respond. The movie gets a little on-the-nose when Randy has a heart attack in the second act, but Rourke and Aronofsky ignore the easy symbolism; there’s a fine scene when Randy takes a shower, trying to protect the cellophane-wrapped gash in his chest as if it were a new tattoo.
I’m always eager to learn from a movie, especially about what people do for a living, and The Wrestler offers some insight (which feels authentic) into the inner workings of wrestling: the pre-match meetings between “foes” to determine which moves they’re going to use on each other; the razor blade hidden in the wrist wrap to draw one’s own blood for effect. The punishment gets nasty at times (the staple-gun bit has already become infamous), but we see that for Randy, it’s just a part of the gig, though he doesn’t bounce back from the damage as quickly as he used to. Real life is infinitely more painful for him — sitting alone in his trailer, drinking himself to sleep, clinging to whatever brief contact he can get (the scene in which he and a neighborhood kid play a Nintendo game featuring a pixellated Randy “the Ram” is both funny and sad).
With the exception of his underrated death fantasia The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky has always been drawn to the grit and despair of the down and out, starting with his debut Pi and continuing with Requiem for a Dream. This movie completes the trilogy, I guess; it’s atypical in Aronfsky’s portfolio in that there’s nothing visually flashy about it whatsoever — the only pumping-up comes from ‘80s hair-metal songs, Randy’s preferred personal soundtrack (the scene where Rourke does a barroom dance for Marisa Tomei to Ratt’s “Round and Round” deserves to go on a greatest-hits montage of his screen work). Aronofsky keeps his camera steadily on his star, knowing that Rourke brings everything the movie needs — himself, and his intimate knowledge of failure. It’s one of the decade’s great performances.