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  The Wrestler

Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Ajay Naidu

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Produced by: Darren Aronofsky, Nicolas Cage, Norm Golighty, Scott Franklin

Written by: Robert Siegel, Darren Aronofsky
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures


    In the heat of the awards season, it’s easy to trivialize a shoe-in performance by treating it as a product and not a piece of art. By the time the Oscars rolled around last year, Daniel Day Lewis’ maddeningly complex portrait of a greedy oilman had been coined the greatest work of the year and it was left unexplored as such. I can’t help but feel that awards voters lost sight of the brilliance they were voting for because said brilliance had become a given after all the critical raves, a notion that suggests that even the most vital art is being cheapened and commercialized.


     This is my preface to cautioning filmgoers, entertainment commentators, and awards-voters that this year we must not lose sight of the depth of the performance that will undoubtedly win Best Actor. It belongs to Mickey Rourke and by now, with the great film it drives playing in New York and Los Angeles, needs no introduction. But I’ll provide one anyway because I cannot exhaust talking about how remarkable Rourke, an actor who had long been considered down-and-out in Hollywood despite occasionally strong efforts in Tarantino and Rodriguez films, is in this role. Nor can The Wrestler’s overall greatness be overstated.


      Part of Rourke’s strength in The Wrestler comes from his ability to relate his own has-been image in the film industry to that of his character, Randy “The Ram” Ramsinski, in professional wrestling. (In fact, the connection runs even deeper than that: Rourke once took five years off making movies to pursue boxing.)  The sense of sympathy he has for the character shows in his ability to bring humanity an isolated screw-up of a man. Randy, once a prized fighter, is now relegated to working in a supermarket during the week and taking amateur wrestling gigs on the weekends to pay the bills. But he often doesn’t even manage that feat, not making rent on his trailer-home and resorting to drowning his miseries in lust for stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) with the feeble cash he pockets from high-school gym matches and poorly-attended signings.


      Rourke approaches Randy from the perfect angle: he never treats the character as a “lovable loser,” nor does he apologize for Randy’s mistakes. Instead, Rourke taps into a man who doesn’t know anything beyond wrestling, full of regret and wanting to change but unable to overcome his way of life. Randy is a delicate guy, but he has been conditioned to be a wrestler. The juxtaposition between Randy’s underlying humanity and the brutality of the “sport” he engages in is shocking.


     It is often said that foreign films offer the key to other worlds, but director Darren Aronofsky has used said key to unlock an ignored part of the impoverished corners of America. Shooting on gritty 16mm, he delves into the gut-churning details of a pastime that is mistaken for a staged show used to garner TV ratings. Randy cuts himself in the forehead and takes hits from staple-guns and chairs, all because he has been conditioned to feed off the pathetic crowd response to such vanity. He robs himself physically and financially by using steroids, as seen in a fascinating deal sequence that Rourke wrote himself. Watching the fights and the action surrounding them, the viewer is put through hell, and rightfully so. (Steve McQueen could’ve learned a thing or two about this from Aronofsky before making the dreadful Hunger.) With each blow Randy takes, we wonder if we’re responding to man’s inhumanity to man or how such a humane man could see inhumanity as his calling.


     While Randy’s tragic failure to discover a better life for himself is explored in his continued pursuit of wrestling—even when Randy’s doctor orders him to stop fighting after his heart nearly fails, he realizes he will inevitability return for a touted rematch with an old opponent—it’s most heartbreaking in his destructive relationships with the women in his life. He pursues Cassidy to an unhealthy extent, even convincing her they might be in love, blinded to the harsh reality they embody because he’s become immune to it. And then there’s Randy’s heartbreaking relationship with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), who is beginning to live life on her own without him before he appears at her doorstep, only to crush her hopes of normalcy for the umpteenth time. The dynamic is painful to watch because we know Randy’s heart is in the right place—by this time we’ve developed a strong connection with him despite his strong character flaws—but also understand his existence is made up almost exclusively of self-implosions. Wood’s anguished performance makes the scenes the two share all the more emotional; while Rouke’s work may be taking up the bulk of the film’s buzz, Wood should also be nominated for an Oscar.


     In a movie full of complicated character foils and dramatic intensity, it would’ve been easy for Aronofsky, writer Robert D. Siegel, and the cast to have strayed from the most realistic portrayal possible. Against the odds, they have made a film that authentically captures life’s pleasures and disappointments in the gritty, grimey world they ambitiously tackled. The characters act as though they would in real life and the situations have been researched extensively. Randy’s fundamental lack of understanding of how he can overcome his situation and the ensuing conflicts challenge both the viewer’s perception of American poverty and their sympathy for a type of forgotten person who often goes unnoticed. But what makes The Wrestler a great film is not its social perceptiveness – the true magic rests in its uncompromising, affecting emotions, which grab the audience on an innate level and don’t let go, spurring a visceral reaction that begs for afterthought. The picture is a masterpiece.


-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 12.18.2008

Screened on: 12.12.2008 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, CA.


The Wrestler is rated R and runs 105 minutes.

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