Was it the pile driver, or the puke-green spandex? Mickey Rourke feels the pain in The Wrestler.
“The ’90s fucking sucked,” observes Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) at one point in The Wrestler. He’s referring specifically to the music—how “that pussy Kurt Cobain” killed the era of the hair-metal classics he loved—but it’s obvious he’s also referring to his own life. Once a golden-haired star of big-time professional wrestling in the 1980s, Robinson still clings to the time when he was cheered by thousands. He may drive a beat-up truck, but he has his own action figure on the dashboard; he may live in a trailer that’s occasionally padlocked when he can’t pay his rent, but he has a vintage wrestling video game in that trailer where he can play his glory-days self against neighborhood kids. Twenty years removed from the apex of his fame, “The Ram” still chases the high of performing for an audience—even if now that audience consists of a few hundred people in New Jersey high-school gyms, and his neon tights and thrashing entrance music mark him as a novelty act.
Much has been made, understandably, of Rourke’s performance, which has been showered with year-end awards. But it’s a mistake to suggest that The Wrestler is all about the fascination of watching Rourke apply his wrecked face and ripped body to this character. As good as he is, this is more than a performance showpiece with undertones of sideshow freakery. The Wrestler is one of the most unexpectedly heartbreaking film dramas in a long time—and the idea that it’s even remotely an underdog-sports movie like Rocky is mind-bogglingly wrong-headed.
Screenwriter Robert Siegel does set up his story with a feint in that direction. Director Darren Aronofsky dives deep into the culture of wrestling, including the pre-fight “working the script” preparation between opponents and Randy’s own routine of hair dying, tanning beds and steroids. After one particularly brutal match—the squeamish are warned that The Wrestler does not paint a pretty face on getting the business end of barbed wire—Randy suffers a heart attack, and is forced to retire rather than risk his life. But on the horizon was a re-match with “The Ayatollah,” with whom Randy faced off in a legendary bout 20 years earlier. Will he be able to recover in time for another shot at the big time?
That’s the obvious question—but it’s also the wrong question. The Wrestler observes as Randy tries to make sense of a life outside the ring, whether it’s finding steady work behind a supermarket deli counter, posing for pictures at nostalgia-circuit memorabilia shows, or attempting to reconcile with his angry, estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). But it soon becomes obvious that Randy has no idea how to live that kind of life. As he walks in the backrooms at his workplace preparing to sling potato salad—the sound design placing the distant chants of a fired-up audience in his head—Randy becomes a case study in self-destructive single-mindedness.
It would have been easy for Rourke to play Randy as an embittered brute, but it’s equally easy to forget that he has always been an actor who played machismo with more subtlety. While there’s no way to separate Rourke’s appearance from the role—if ever an actor has looked like time itself has beaten the crap out of him, it’s Mickey—he actually plays against his looks, with both a gentle wistfulness and an eagerness to please. He’s nearly matched by Wood, who gets one of the year’s truly lump-in-the-throat moments as Stephanie embraces a chance at a father-daughter bond denied to her for years. And Marisa Tomei bares more than her still-impressive body as Pam, a strip-club dancer whose own struggle with being past her prime more than faintly echoes Randy’s.
There is, however, a fairly significant difference between how Pam and Randy ultimately deal with the idea of moving on to the next stage in their lives. Some critics have suggested that there’s something triumphant about The Wrestler’s climactic scenes—and the final shot in particular—which feels like a catastrophic misreading. Anchored by Rourke’s towering performance, Siegel and Aronofsky have put together a wonderfully sad, particularly American kind of tragedy: a look at what happens to someone who only understands himself in the context of a celebrity that has passed him by.
The Wrestler is currently screening at the Village 6.