2008. Starring Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei. Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
The talk leading up to this past Oscar season was that there couldn’t have been a better actor for the role of the washed-up warrior in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler than the once-famous Mickey Rourke. That may be true. But I think that, instead, there could not have been a better way to reintroduce the natural and intuitive acting skill of Mickey Rourke than this role — a role that seems written precisely for him.
Rourke becomes Randy “The Ram” Robinson very seamlessly, and it may be because he looks unlike the Mickey Rourke of Angel Heart and of Diner, the pouting, brooding young Brando (who also made the most of his evolving image) of the 1980s. He does look a lot like the vengeance-driven Marv of Sin City, but I had no idea that he had cost Robert Rodriguez so little in makeup expenses. Rourke is enormously muscular, biceps and pectorals no longer taut, but scarred and heavy. The breaths and groans that emerge from him as he wraps himself before his match don’t seem voluntary, and the winces evoked as he bounces on the mat seem real. So does the pain he feels when he tries to make contact with the people he spends the movie reaching out to.
Robinson finds himself 20 years past his prime, still wrestling on weekends for wads of cash, while working in a supermarket to pay for his tentative trailer home. He spends his off-hours at a strip club, admiring a mature stripper named Cassidy (another revealing role for the brave Marisa Tomei). The two of them have much more in common than either one realizes — both provide a fantasy for their customers, who are oblivious to the pain they are feeling on their respective stages. And both of them are growing too old to be convincing much longer in their roles. Randy reaches out to Cassidy, but her dreams are more condo than trailer. When she lets her guard down, she finds that they are could share more than ’80s nostalgia and a love of Ratt and Guns ‘n’ Roses.
The Ram has a heart attack after a brutal match, and suffers a subsequent re-evaluation of his life. He doubles his efforts at reconciling with his estranged daughter (a chilly Evan Rachel Wood — she looks as if she’s been living in cold storage) and, on the brink of making good on years of neglect and disinterest, gives into bad habits that threaten to derail the happy ending he’s been wishing for.
Aronofsky captures the heartbreak of a dying dream, with The Ram’s struggles to keep his tiny trailer home and the demeaning job in the supermarket. (I love the familiar tracking shot as Rourke plops on his hairnet and walks the the deli backstage to emerge through the plastic curtains and greet the ugly shoppers. Rourke faces it with more dread than the walk out to face his wrestling adversaries.) This simple man, embarrassed by his hearing aid and afraid of the failing wrecks he sees around him, deserves to have someone care for him as his star fades.
I don’t have any enthusiasm for pro wrestling. I guess I figured out long ago that — spoiler alert! — it was fake and not very well faked. (Although a friend’s family took a very young me to see Mad Dog Vachon wrestle in Duluth — when we gathered to ask for autographs, he chased us all away with a demented growling. That was scary.) But it’s clear that the blows in the ring and the crashes to the mat can make for a very painful and debilitating retirement. Another Minnesota wrestling legend, Verne Gagne, now suffering from Alzheimer’s-related conditions, has been in the news for an assault on and related accidental death of a fellow nursing-home resident. The sadness behind that chain of real-life events would be too hard to believe if scripted.
The Wrestler reminds us that life is filled with pain, all kinds of pain. Some you choose, some chooses you. You endure it, because you must. And you are expected to get up and comfort yourself, and expect more of the same as long as you live. You might heal, but you won’t forget the pain.