Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
I have long accepted Mickey Rourke as one of Hollywood's best actors.
I have also long accepted that Rourke fucked up his talent long ago, becoming victim to the fame, riches and other spoils of success.
Rourke coulda' been, shoulda' been a contender.
For years now, he's been an afterthought...a "Where are they now?" VH-1 special waiting to happen.
Mickey Rourke meets redemption in Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler," one of 2008's truly great films featuring one of 2008's most iconic charactrs, Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Rourke).
I'm honestly not sure if Rourke becomes Ram or if, in ways both direct and indirect, he actually is Ram.
All I know is I've not been this enthralled with a character in quite some time, and it's Rourke's willingness to completely immerse himself in this film that turns "The Wrestler" into a film you absolutely will not forget.
If you loved the grittiness, the authenticity of "Rocky" then you will absolutely embrace "The Wrestler."
"Rocky" was a good film. "The Wrestler" is a great film.
In the 1980's, the Ram was at the top of the wrestling world. He was a championship wrestler, a household name with a video game in his honor and an action figure owned by every true wrestling fan.
20 years later, the Ram lives in a trailer, works at a local supermarket and wrestles in local community centers for a mere pittance of what he used to earn. He's an aging icon, embraced by his fellow wrestlers but he's clearly a shell of his former self. He keeps wrestling primarily because it's the only thing he's ever really done...well, that is.
Ram is estranged from his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), and has a surprisingly real relationship with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an aging stripper who tries to maintain the professional boundaries with this "customer" but can't seem to resist his essential goodness.
That's both the glory and the sadness of "The Wrestler." Rourke's Ram is, seemingly, a genuinely good guy who has screwed up virtually everything in his life but wrestling.
After a particularly grueling fight with "Necro Butcher" (Dylan Summers), Ram has a heart attack and is told to never fight again. Ram tries to stop fighting. He tries, with heartbreaking failure, to mend the relationship with his daughter. He tries, with hit and miss success, to woo Cassidy away from the pole and into a normal life.
He just keeps failing. When The Ayatollah agrees to a 20th anniversary rematch of his most famous match, well, it may be just too tempting to resist.
Rourke is astonishing in "The Wrestler." It's as if he takes every stupid decision, bad relationship, alcohol or drug-fueled fight and professional misstep and throws them all inside the Ram.
There are those who will fault "The Wrestler" for being fake, manipulative, stagey and Hollywood.
I dare say that's the point.
Everything, virtually every aspect of wrestling is staged, fake, manipulative, staged and completely and totally brutal.
The Ram pities himself, but also knows he's created this mess he calls life. Much like Rocky Balboa did in that very first "Rocky," the Ram lives a humble, trailer park life and yet he does so with a sense of honesty and dignity.
While Rourke has been garnering much of the awards talk, Tomei's performance is nearly as marvelous and equally as awards worthy. Cassidy could have easily been a caricature, an aging stripper with a heart of gold.
Tomei's performance is so intense that you forget that she's dancing naked before you. She's as vulnerable emotionally as she is physically, and both are hypnotic. Tomei's Cassidy is earthy, honest, vulnerable, convicted and soulful. Tomei's performance is easily one of 2008's best performances by an actress.
Aronofsky has always been a bit of a cultish director, too intelligent and too artistic to ever really have hopes of reaching a wider audience.
Some love him. Some hate him. Some don't get him, while others pretend to.
I'm not convinced that "The Wrestler" will reach a wider audience, but it is easily Aronofsky's most accessible film.
"The Wrestler" dabbles less in artistic visions and intellectual meanderings, and more in the artistic ways in which we live our lives.
The Ram is an artist. Wrestling is his art, and it is all he knows.
Cassidy is an artist. Unlike the Ram, Cassidy has been able to paint outside the lines a bit...she has a life outside stripping and she has hopes of bringing it to life.
Wrestling itself is an art form that comes vividly to life in "The Wrestler." We see the tricks, the gimmicks and the stagings...most of them we know, after all, because these are old gimmicks, old tricks and old stagings.
Maryse Alberti's handheld camera work is a perfect complement to the lives of Ram and Cassidy and the other players in this story, many of whom are played by non-actors and real-life wrestlers. Even the musical accompaniment, which includes the likes of Springsteen and Guns n' Roses, feels perfectly working class without glorifying nor condescending to the film's goings on.
"The Wrestler" is a difficult film to watch, and yet it is beautiful to behold. It is ugly, yet it is mesmerizing. It is powerful, yet it is graceful.
Unflinchingly honest almost to the point of sadism, "The Wrestler" may not be Aronofsky's best film but it has taken its place as my favorite of Aronofsky's works.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic