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Dustin Putman

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The Wrestler  (2008)
3 Stars
Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Mark Margolis, Todd Barry, Wass Stevens, Judah Friedlander, Ernest Miller, Dylan Summers, Tommy Farra, Mike Miller.
2008 – 109 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, sexuality/nudity, language and some drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 8, 2008.
"The Wrestler" is a small film, unflashy and naturally gritty, and that works in its favor. One doesn't watch the picture so much as he or she lives it, wincing all the way through its raw, painfully intimate character study of a man at the end of his ropes, struggling to reclaim the glory he once had even as he self-destructs. The experience isn't always easy to gaze upon—it's frequently brutal and sad, playing out with the messiness of real life—but the results are worth the effort. This is a rapturously enthralling and deeply poignant film, one of the year's best, and in director Darren Aronofsky and lead actor Mickey Rourke is an unlikely but ideal match. Both seem to be better because of the other.

In the 1980s, professional wrestler Randy 'The Ram' Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was on top of the world, making loads of money and loved by millions of fans. Twenty years later, he is older, bruised, and stuck playing regional matches held in high school gymnasiums. His scarred face has taken a beating, and so has his bank account (he lives in a trailer home that he regularly gets locked out of for not paying the rent). He injects performance drugs into his backside, and is willing to go as far as it takes to up the ante and impress the audience. Soon after a match involving staple guns gets out of hand, Randy suffers a heart attack. Told by the doctor that his body can no longer take the strain of wrestling, his mid-life crisis cranks into high gear. As he struggles to confide in friendly stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), he also decides it's time to reconnect with his long-estranged teenage daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). He suffers a great indignity by taking a job behind the counter of a grocery store deli, and can't help but allow himself to be tempted by the chance to fight a popular fellow wrestler in the biggest venue he's had in years.

"The Wrestler" does not have a convenient, easily described plot. It doesn't need it. The film simply observes Randy in his everyday life, not judging but certainly lamenting how far he has fallen. For filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, this is his most mature and accomplished work to date, free of the pretentiousness of 1998's "Pi," the stylistic affectations of 2000's "Requiem for a Dream," and the overreaching existentialism of 2006's "The Fountain." Pared down to a man with a camera, capturing the private moments of a fallen celebrity who wants, but isn't quite able, to rebuild his life and make up for the mistakes he's made and relationships he's severed, Aronofsky builds a pulsating cinematic portraiture both frustrating and achingly sympathetic.

Randy 'The Ram' Robinson is a fascinating individual—flawed, obviously, but such an unwitting screw-up that it's impossible to hate him or stop caring. Director of photography Maryse Alberti (2004's "We Don't Live Here Anymore") injects each scene with a stunning immediacy, as when the camera is placed on the back of Randy as he works at the deli, his flowing blond locks pulled up in a hairnet. With each new shopper Randy deals with, he makes a valiant attempt to make things fun and pretend that the life he is currently leading isn't his own. The image he holds of himself is deflated little by little, and witnessing this occur is uncomfortable even when you can't take your eyes off the screen. Also captured perfectly is a sequence where Randy attends a wrestling signing, equating to a half-dozen has-beens sitting at tables in an auditorium, their merchandise barely glanced at by the sorry trickle of people who show up long enough to get an autograph. The milieu of the small-time convention circuit is so on-target that it could be mistaken for a documentary.

Mickey Rourke (2005's "Sin City") gives the performance of a lifetime as Randy 'The Ram' Robinson. For a former A-list actor who fell from grace for a long time after burning some bridges and receiving a bad reputation, Rourke knows and understands Randy inside and out. With a believable, muscled body and a worn, damaged face, he looks the part he is playing, and does even better by putting everything he seemingly knows into this layered, authentic, three-dimensional protagonist. Tough-looking but weary, imposing but mortal, Randy ultimately cannot run away from his embattled emotions or the overwhelming desire for attention his career once saw. Even the music he listens to—'80s power rock—suggests his inability to move past 1989. Rourke's Randy, front and center in every scene, is a heartbreaker, and the riveting actor doesn't need schmaltz or melodrama to achieve it.

In well-honed supporting roles, Marisa Tomei (2007's "Wild Hogs") is uninhibited and tender as Cassidy, a working single mother and stripper tired of being eclipsed by her profession, and Evan Rachel Wood (2008's "The Life Before Her Eyes") is less abrasive than expected in her usual part as brooding teen Stephanie. Neither actress becomes an easy cliché in Robert D. Siegel's screenplay, with Tomei's care for Randy at odds with her tentative feelings about romantically getting close to someone, and Wood's Stephanie responsive to her father's sincere attempt to get to know her. When Randy and Stephanie visit a cold, deserted Asbury Park—a tie to their past—and end up in an impromptu dance together, it is a simplistic but powerful moment to take your breath away. Later, when their mending father-daughter relationship hits another snag, this one potentially irreversible, Wood stingingly comes through in her reading of a girl tired of always getting her hopes up and being disappointed by her parent.

"The Wrestler" sets itself up for a weepy ending, and then blessedly ends before it reaches that point. The viewer has a pretty good idea what is coming next, and understands the sacrifices Randy is making, when he participates in the climactic wrestling match with opponent The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller). That Randy is unable to turn his back on his public identity, and that things culminate with him being exactly where he wants to be, is both the tragedy and the glory of his character. It would be a shame for "The Wrestler," being released in the heart of the holiday season, to get lost in the shuffle of higher-profile releases. For Mickey Rourke's masterful performance, and for Darren Aronofsky's exquisitely minimalist direction, and for a revealing story never quite shown in this stark a light, this is a film not to be missed.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman