The Wrestler (2008)
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
In a career made famous by the haunting, abstract nature of his films, director Darren Aronofsky’s best work is not only his most understated but also his most underrated. The Wrestler, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 2009, is a commentary onto itself. It’s the story of an old man who used to be famous trying to get his life back together, a mirror image between the title character, Randy Robinson, and the man who plays him, Mickey Rourke.
Rourke’s career was thought to be done by the late 1990’s. He was never a megastar, but he had a successful career, and had faded into the ether as someone who might be remembered fondly by the few who could recall his films. Then in 2005 he was thrusted back into the spotlight when he played perhaps the most memorable of all the colorful characters in Sin City. It was a revitalization for Rourke, who had generally stuck to actions films through his prime. He followed Sin City with the underrated Domino, and the latched onto a project no one ever would have predicted for him.
The phrase “tour de force” is overused by people who write about movies, but Rourke’s performance shouldn’t be described any other way. He is charming and sad, hopeful but at his wits end. He plays, you guessed it, a wrestler. He used to be big-time, back in the 1980’s when the sport was at its peak. He still can’t help but flaunt his showmanship and play out his rock star life style despite a body that is rapidly failing him. Steroids and cocaine have put a deadly strain on his heart, but he doesn’t know anything besides life in the ring. Then there’s his daughter.
Greek tragedies, of which this film inarguably is, are powered not necessarily by the protagonist but by the people they love. Randy “The Ram” Robinson loves two women, but only one loves him back. Marisa Tomei plays Randy’s love interest and really his only friend. She’s sweet, caring and understanding – the kind of person Randy doesn’t think he deserves. Evan Rachel Wood plays Randy’s daughter. After 20 something years of being forgotten, she wants nothing to do with him. But everyone loves Randy, and not even she can push him away forever. The chemistry between Rourke and these two women is electric. He and Tomei have an inherent chemistry, highlighted by the intimate lighting and close frames Aronofsky uses when they are together. By contrast, scenes with Rourke and Wood are shot in the cold, open outdoors. They don’t stand close to each other, and their body language is stiff and apprehensive.
The Wrestler is a simple, beautiful film. It is shot beautifully, well-written – it fits and superlatives you can place on a good movie. Beyond that, it’s intriguing. You get a glimpse at the life of wrestlers, the drugs they take and how the plan their matches. You see how the glory of a big crowd can be addictive but how sad it is when hardly anyone shows up.
The Wrestler was supposed to spark the Rourke Renaissance. He was a big-tickets item in Hollywood for a short time, and made Iron Man II and The Expendables. But life imitated art too closely for Rourke. Just as Randy succumbed to his need to hear the crows roar one last time, so did Mickey to the ever enticing 15 minutes of fame.