LONDON: Surprise… it’s ‘The Wrestler’

Posted by · 7:59 pm · October 26th, 2008

It’s a rainy Sunday night in London, and darkness fell a whole hour earlier thanks to the start of daylight savings. All of which only made me happier to be seated inside the warm cavern of the Leicester Square Odeon for my favorite event of the London Film Festival — the annual Surprise Film.

Usually a hot title secured too late for inclusion in the main festival lineup, and not revealed until the title shows up on screen, the Surprise Film has a mixed track record. Festival director Sandra Hebron scored last year by getting “No Country for Old Men,” but I’ll never forget the groans of disappointment that greeted the opening credits of “Mrs Henderson Presents” in 2005.

In the foyer before the screening, whispers were spreading that this year’s choice was either “Changeling” or “The Wrestler.” So as the lights went down and the logo of the Venice Golden Lion prize flashed onto screen, announcing Darren Aronofsky’s much-lauded new film, the murmur of approval around the theater was palpable. (Incidentally, I called this pick a few weeks back — mainly because I was so surprised not to see it in the lineup.)

But Hebron had more than one surprise up her sleeve tonight — unusually for the surprise slot, both Darren Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke showed up for a post-film Q&A. Nobody was expecting that, and it made for my most entertaining festival experience so far, though I’m now kicking myself for bringing neither camera nor notepad (d’oh!) to the screening. A terrific coup for the festival — kudos to Sandra.

As for the film itself, I’m still too shaken by it to offer much in the way of coherent thought, but count me among the yea-sayers. Deceptively simple in form but deeply probing as character study, it strikes me as exactly the right film for Aronofsky to have made at this point in his career. As someone who actively dislikes everything to do with the wrestling circuit, I had concerns about how much I could personally connect with the film, but it proved revelatory — sport aside, this is a story of the body as a war zone.

Rourke, meanwhile, gives the definition of a career performance, one that plays on his off-screen and on-screen histories in daring, fascinating ways — hard to imagine any other actor inhabiting the role so completely. I know there are plenty of theoretical arguments against it — the smallness of the film, the roughness of the part, Rourke’s own Hollywood bridge-burning — but I can’t conceive of any other actor rightfully winning the Oscar come February. This feels right.

Bouquets, too, to Marisa Tomei for crafting such a lived-in character from such bare script bones — can people stop harping on about her surprise win in 1992 and just admit she’s one of the finest character actresses around these days?

The Q&A, meanwhile, was brief, casual and thoroughly engaging. Aronofsky and Rourke (looking far more trim than he did at Venice, incidentally, and in leather pants to boot) have a great, affectionate rapport between them — you sense these two have really been through something momentous together. (Enough so that Rourke can joke, when asked about wanting to work with the director: “I’d seen a couple of his movies and thought they were really good. Well, and one was okay.”)

Interestingly, when Rourke was asked whether his boxing background came in at all handy, he admitted that for this role, he’d have been better off without it: “It’s just a completely different game. I had to train from scratch. And I really hated wrestling before… had no respect for it. It’s all choreographed, like theatre.” He paused, looked down at his shoes, and mumbled, “I don’t like theatre either.”

This got the biggest laugh of the night, but Rourke was in fine form throughout. Moaning about how relentlessly Aronofsky made him train for the part, he quipped, “And this from a guy whose only physical activity is lifting his fork to his mouth.”

The banter between the two flowed beautifully; when an audience member asked Aronofsky what inspired the stylistic change of pace, he answered, “I want to be like Madonna, reinventing myself,” only to receive a scornful jab in the ribs from Rourke. “Not Madonna? What’s wrong with her?” Aronofsky asked, mock-aggrieved. “How about David Bowie?”

Rourke rolled his eyes: “Springsteen,” he said, chidingly. Aronofsky: “Nah, he’s done the same thing his whole career. Very well, of course,” he hastened to add. “Like that song in the movie.” Upon which the two collapsed into laughter again.

Great chat, great movie, great night. (On a side note, I was seated right behind none other than Mike Leigh — he seemed to enjoy himself too.) If Rourke can maintain that level of charm in his public appearances throughout awards season, there’s more than one reason I’d like to see him give a speech on Oscar night.

→ 17 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Daily · Featured

17 responses so far

  • 1 10-26-2008 at 8:40 pm

    Chad said...

    I thought “The Wrestler” was merely slightly above average. Rourke is good for sure, and well cast, but I didn’t see a performance for the ages. Aronofsky filmed it exactly the way you’d expect and the script is 95% formula, 5% tweaks. Well executed, but like “Michael Clayton” last year, this is a level of quality that I think should be considered decent, but is elevated to more by the lack of quality everywhere else.

  • 2 10-26-2008 at 8:53 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Chad, that’s the silliest thing I’ve read on this site in a while. And considering some of the doosies I’ve cranked out in blog post after blog post, that’s saying something.

  • 3 10-26-2008 at 8:53 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Though I agree with the “Clayton” jab.

  • 4 10-26-2008 at 11:45 pm

    Chad said...

    Which part was silly? Considering The Wrestler to be slightly above average or wishing their were more brilliant films to drive the learning curve up?

  • 5 10-27-2008 at 12:18 am

    Marvin said...

    Soooooooooo looking forward to this.

    Can you believe I haven’t been to the movies since WALL-E?

  • 6 10-27-2008 at 2:00 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    C’mon Marvin… it hasn’t been the best year, granted, but there have been a few reasons to go to the movies since WALL-E ;)

    Chad, when you say Aronofsky filmed it “exactly the way you’d expect,” for me it was his stripped-down, unfussy approach that I WASN’T expecting, in light of his previous work. I needed a minute to collect myself after the credits rolled, which doesn’t happen for me that often. But each to their own, of course.

  • 7 10-27-2008 at 2:24 am

    Nikki Wicks said...

    Guy…I too was lucky enough to be at the surprise screening last night and I share you thoughts down to the last word. I was deeply shaken by the movie and like you, will take some time before I can find the right words. A brilliant night, a remarkable film and a performance that will haunt my thoughts for days to come.

  • 8 10-27-2008 at 5:37 am

    John Foote said...

    Guy, great post — saw the film in Toronto at the film fest and am still reeling, thinking about everyday — whayt Aronofksy accomplsihed was quite exceptional, and Rourke is astonishing, truly a film for the ages — Tomei equally good — great to see Rourke back doing great work, but still there is not a lot of love for this man in Hollywood — he’s back for sure, and tremendous in a great film (c’mon Chad!!) but I am not so sure many people really want him back in the business — certainly we do because of his artistry, and some directors, but even Aronofksy needed to lay down the law for Mickey and tell him how things were going to be on set —
    As always great post on a great film.

  • 9 10-27-2008 at 9:55 am

    Ken Peggs said...

    I enjoyed the hell out of this movie last night. I’d give it 4/5. Yes, the plot is *very* formulaic, but the stripped down cinematography, ultra-sharp eye for detail and towering central performance all more than compensate. In fact, maybe a more inventive plot would have distracted from the films real strengths. And yeah, excellent Q&A at the end, although I could have sworn Rourke suggested ‘Bruce Willis’, which surprised me greatly at the time :-D

  • 10 10-27-2008 at 10:23 am

    Joel said...

    I’ll see it the day it comes out down in Texas–Dec. 19. God, long time to wait…

  • 11 10-27-2008 at 11:03 am

    Sam said...

    It’s a hell of a movie. I wonder if they will be able to vote for Rourke when the time comes though. He has pissed a LOT of people off through the years.

    Also, though her role was small, I actually liked Evan Rachel Wood’s performance over Tomei. I wished for more screen time.
    But, I’m a woman and maybe I relate more to the forgotten daughter then the stripper with a heart of gold.

  • 12 10-27-2008 at 6:13 pm

    Bradley Porter said...

    Yeah, I was there… Q+A was great, but I can’t shake the film, it’s been on my mind all day. Same feeling I had after Into the Wild last year. Completely remarkable and I somehow think it’ll find it’s way to a Best Pic nom…

  • 13 10-27-2008 at 6:28 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I think it’s possible too, Bradley, though Kris disagrees.

    Sam, I liked Wood too, but I thought Tomei’s performance was more complete, more lived-in.

  • 14 10-28-2008 at 7:12 am

    Nikki Wicks said...

    2 days gone since the surprise screening…my mind is still haunted by this movie. Totally agree with you Bradley, Into the Wild left me feeling numb for a few days too.

  • 15 10-28-2008 at 10:49 am

    Roger said...

    What about Evan Rachel Wood? Is she any good in the movie?

  • 16 10-28-2008 at 11:44 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    See comments 11 and 13, Roger. She is good, though she doesn’t have a major character arc. I was more engaged by Marisa Tomei, but there isn’t a weak link in the film.