Sunday, February 08, 2009

Movie review: The Wrestler

This weekend, I finally made it to the theater to see Darren Aronofsky's much-acclaimed film, The Wrestler. Aronofsky is one of today's most formidable directing talents with a sparse but powerful resumé. I first became acquainted with his work when I viewed his 2000 masterpiece, the enormously powerful, absolutely brilliant, and deeply disturbing Requiem for a Dream.

The Wrestler features Mickey Rourke in the lead role, playing an aging professional wrestler, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, who must come to terms with his physical demise after abusing his body for 20 years. Randy's life as a professional wrestler has not been easy. Apart from the physical toll of his profession, he's alone, living in squalor, and estranged from his grown daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). His only human connection is with a stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), herself facing the truth of her years, in whom he sees a potential companion with which he might try to forge some new life, away from the wrestling ring.

As the film progresses, we watch Randy come face to face with his own mortality. A serious health problem prods him into confronting his squandered past, the emotional and material poverty of his present, and his less-than-promising future. He sets out to discover if there might be some other life out there worth living.

The Wrestler is being billed as "the resurrection of Mickey Rourke," and for good reason. It may be a measure of Rourke's talent as an actor, but I feel that his characters are depictions of Rourke himself. So too with his portrayal of "The Ram" Robinson. But, in a break from previous roles (John in Nine 1/2 Weeks, for example, or Harry in Angel Heart), Rourke is no longer a smirking, super-macho, wise-cracker who defies the world. Randy "The Ram" is a man well-acquainted with defeat: humbled, bewildered, sorrowful. It is a masterful, heart-rending performance. And Tomei and Wood are both outstanding in the supporting roles.

In one scene, while performing a "lap dance" for Randy at the strip club, Cassidy (Tomei) tells Randy her impressions of the film The Passion of the Christ. She expresses amazement at the suffering endured by the Christ character. "They were giving it to him with whips, arrows, rocks. Everything. For the whole two hours." Randy, whom we have seen suffer similarly while plying his own trade as a professional wrestler, shakes his head in resigned acknowledgment. "Tough guy," he says. (Take that, Mel Gibson.)

The Wrestler uses no digital remastering for its imagery; the film is grainy. The camera perspective suggests a day-in-the-life chronicle like those typical in documentaries. There is no musical score. The dialog is bare bones, real: no poetic flourishes. Even Randy's soliloquy at the close of the movie is restrained, inarticulate, entirely believable. Taken altogether, these various techniques render an effect of sad resignation, of surrender.

In my mind, there is no doubt that The Wrestler succeeds. Just as he did with the earlier Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky completely avoids sentimentality; he remains dispassionate and objective as he unflinchingly depicts the fall and destruction of his protagonist.

The Wrestler is an outstanding work. I give it my highest recommendation.


Unknown said...

Great review Dade. I really enjoyed the film too. I especially liked raw cinematography - film stock, shots chosen and solid, but hand-held style of shooting. Gritty realism, yup that's what this is.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Maybe I will have to see it. I'm usually so disappointed by movies with big hype that I didn't have it at the top of my list.