Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Wrestler (2008)

Director: Darren Aronofsky                            Writer: Robert D. Siegel
Film Score: Clint Mansell                              Cinematography: Maryse Alberti
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood and Todd Barry

It’s been a long time since Mickey Rourke has been seen as a credible actor capable of generating any kind of award nominations but, like his character in The Wrestler, that’s all he knows and he keeps on climbing back into the ring. In fact, with this film Rourke was acknowledged for his performance with an Academy Award nomination for best actor and won a Golden Globe in the same category. And it was well deserved. Sure, watching the film is like watching a traffic fatality, but that’s the point. Rourke plays an over the hill professional wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, who was once at the top of his profession, playing to sold out arenas all over the country. Twenty years later, however, he works in a small circuit playing VFW halls and high school gyms. His body and his face show the accumulated miles of physical and chemical abuse. But still he marches on, oblivious to the fact that, obviously, one day he’s going to have to quit.

The film begins with Rourke in the locker room preparing for a bout, taping himself up, getting dressed, and looking as though it can’t be possible for him to perform. He looks like an old man, pumped up and tanned to be sure, but more the illusion of a wrestler rather than the real thing. There is an undeniable camaraderie between the obviously much younger wrestlers and himself as they are given their matchups by the promoter and they discuss what routines they want to use in their “act.” Rourke tapes a razor blade on his wristband and during the match cuts his forehead so that the bleeding looks as if it comes from the fight. Afterward he is given his meager pay and finds himself locked out of his trailer when he returns home, not having enough money to pay his rent. The other kids in the trailer park taunt him out of his van in the morning and they go through a clearly time-honored routine of combating with him in the parking lot. In the evening he visits a strip club called Cheeks and chases a bunch of young men out of the private room where they are taunting stripper Marisa Tomei about her age. He and Tomei have developed a relationship of sorts and have an easy way with each other.

It’s a life of routines for Rourke, from his training in the gym that includes the purchase of numerous pharmaceuticals, to his hair dresser whom he admonishes for putting too much bleach on his long, blond hair last time, to the tanning beds were he maintains his orange glow. But at the end of his next match the unexpected happens and he wakes up later in the hospital. Only then does he learn he had open-heart surgery and that he must give up wrestling. When he seeks out Tomei to tell her and hopefully become something more than a customer she tells him she can’t and suggests he contact his estranged daughter, Evan Rachel Wood, which he does with some success, even managing to break down the barrier between him and Tomei in the process. He also gets a regular job behind the deli counter of the grocery store where he worked part time for extra money. But change at this point in his life is not going to be easy, and the forces that kept him in the business for so long are constantly working on him in spite of his physical limitations.

The obvious thing that this film immediately brings to mind is the parallel between the character and the actor. Rourke has been out of the limelight for decades, but still plugging away doing bad film after bad film until he was finally given a part in a successful film, Robert Rodriguez’s Tarrantino-inspired Sin City. The film was also an interesting move for Marisa Tomei to bare it all, but she does a good job as the stripper with kids at home and a soft spot in her heart for Rourke. Evan Rachel Wood as Rourke’s daughter is a commanding presence onscreen and was a perfect choice for the angry young woman who is torn between what her father represents and what he really is. Darren Aronofsky’s direction, hand-held cameras and an almost subjective viewpoint in following around Rourke documentary style, is as big a part of the film as the acting. It is a clichéd story that has been around since the golden age of Hollywood, but this fresh twist on the subject is absolutely compelling and nearly every aspect of the film is admirable. The Wrestler is as disturbing and thought-provoking as it is entertaining and that has always been my definition of a great film.

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