Rourke Returns to the Ring

Film Review: The Wrestler

Directed By: Darren Aronofsky

If you look back at the last four years of leading actors you may notice a trend of performances that early on managed to secure a sweep of all major acting awards, often times despite the overall merit of the film. Jamie Foxx in Ray, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, and Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, each won for their portrayals in decent but hardly perfect biopics. Last year Daniel Day Lewis turned in a masterful performance that towered high above the rest and was destined for glory at all major award ceremonies. While 2008 has a number of strong contenders a clear victor has already proved that this pre-award season Oscar hype trend is sure to be continued.

Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was labeled, rather prematurely one might add, as the comeback role of the once great Mickey Rourke. To be fair to Rourke the actor’s most surprising “back in the spotlight” role came in 2005 as grizzled Marv in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City. While not heralded as award caliber, Rourke turned in one hell of a scene stealing supporting performance in the highly stylized comic book film. What The Wrestler really captures is a deeply personal character study from an actor, who like the tragic, beat up wrestler he portrays, has had his share of highs and lows. To say that this is a career role is an understatement, in many ways it was the role Rourke was destined to play.

What’s striking about The Wrestler is that at its core its nothing more than an underdog sports film in the tradition of its boxing brethren Rocky or Cinderella Man, to name a few. It’s predictable–following the timeless formula of the tragic figure’s return to glory–but its clear that Aronofsky and Rourke understand this but don’t care. The film manages to be fresh thanks to Rourke’s turn as Randy “The Ram” Robinson and the fact that the film inhabits a world most people don’t really know anything about.

In interviews with Aronofsky the director has expressed that early on in his career he envisioned a film entitled The Wrestler, since the world of professional wrestling had never been covered seriously in film. It’s in this film’s fascinating content that The Wrestler is more than simply a vehicle for a great performance (for example the aforementioned Ray or Last King of Scotland) but rather one of the better films this year.

While Rourke’s The Ram once inhabited the mega stardom world of professional wrestling in the 1980s–as seen through the character’s aging fans, personalized action figure, early Nintendo game character–The Wrestler is more concerned about what eventually happens to the once great players in an industry that has since lost its way.

Professional wrestling has always been staged and because of this falls in the realm of entertainment rather than sport. While arguably as popular in the 80s and early 90s as other professional sports, ever since the mass realization of its choreographed nature–as seen in its name change from World Wrestling Federation to World Wrestling Entertainment–wrestling has since become more niche and as a result more gritty. Ram’s glory days of the flashing spotlights, colored spandex, and roaring battles at Madison Square Garden have long been replaced with elementary school gyms, hardcore wrestling moves involving glass, staple guns, and self-induced wounds, not too mention a body that has seen better days.

Besides The Wrestler’s goofy subject matter (and the film is quite funny at times) The Ram is no different than any other once famous athlete who’s been forgotten and tossed aside. But unlike the forefather’s of say basketball or football who are embraced with hall of fame inductions, endorsement agreements, and an overall carefree retired existence, The Ram feels the sting of failure and loneliness.

It’s fitting that he finds comfort in his weekly lap dance with an aging stripper (played equally well by Marisa Tomei, an actress who here also turns in a career high supporting performance) both are professional entertainers in an industry with no respect and both are stuck in aging, occupation hindering bodies. A separate movie called The Stripper could also be made and would be equally as tragic and engaging as The Wrestler provided the right star and filmmaker were on board.

Aronofsky tackles this film and the world of wrestling much like a documentarian might. The supporting cast is made up of primarily real-life wrestlers, each of whom play off Rourke as if he were their equal. Some of the film’s most fascinating scenes take place early on with the behind the crowd pre-match pow-wows in which the performers discuss their upcoming moves and end games much like musicians discuss their setlists. We as the viewer are being sucked into a world most of us never think about and this is the beauty of The Wrestler. We realize wrestling is fake, but beyond that we are clueless to the time and thought that goes into each performance, not to mention the toll the profession takes on its players both physically and mentally. In a field like wrestling, stripping or any other questionable career in entertainment it’s easy to forget the people behind the characters. 

Rourke has his share of tender, teary-eyed moments, most memorably in scenes alongside his estranged daughter whom he attempts to reconnect with. Still it’s his ability to flawlessly transform into The Ram that will no doubt seal the deal for Rourke come award season. His beat up, steroid fueled body (Rourke’s prior foray into the brutal world of professional boxing not to mention questionable plastic surgery procedures no doubt helped his physical transformation), his second nature facial twitches, his lonely mumbling, and his charming interactions with fellow wrestlers, deli counter customers and young fans all enable this successful portrayal.

According to early reports from The Hollywood Reporter Nicolas Cage was originally in line to star in The Wrestler. After watching Rourke come out of his hibernation with this performance it’s hard to imagine anyone else taking on this role, in fact the casting choices truly defined this film.

Rourke’s toughest competitor this year will be the mighty Sean Penn whose mesmerizing turn as Harvey Milk was also a career defining performance. Still the sacrifices endured for taking on The Ram make this role all the more juicy. 

The Wrestler is a rare success of a film, one that features an untouchable performance while also providing a compelling look into a world foreign to most viewers. If the criterion for a truly great film is being able to transport viewers away from their comfort zone into the unfamiliar and ultimately change the way we perceive the unsung world being portrayed, The Wrestler is a masterpiece. If great acting is shedding all common real life presumptions and misconceptions by completely absorbing the character, Mickey Rourke is this year’s acting champ. 

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