REVIEW: “The Wrestler” (***1/2)

Posted by · 7:42 am · November 7th, 2008

Mickey Rourke in The WrestlerAFI Fest

Darren Aronofsky went back to the drawing board on “The Wrestler,” a film that wallows in nuance, spearheaded by a performance of grace and subtle charisma.

After “The Fountain” failed to catch on in any meaningful way (though this viewer considered it one of the best films of 2006), the director ravaged by a studio system that condensed his vision to an essence he wasn’t fully comfortable with, Aronofsky took up the reins of the most modest, straight-forward project he’s tackled in 10 years.  The result is as affecting as it is numbing.

Mickey Rourke stars as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a one-time head of the class professional wrestler who makes his living (barely) working in the independent circuit.  His body as beat up as Aronofsky’s confidence must have been two years ago (he wears a hearing aid as a result of his work description and the look of a broken mare across his face), Randy is in some ways the ultimate blue collar guy.

Forget Joe the plumber, we’ve got Randy the wrestler.

He gets by on what little income he can manage from his stake of this event gate or that, sleeping in his big Dodge van (a Ram, of course) when he isn’t able to meet the rent on his trailer.  His afternoon hang-out is the local dive strip club where he is friendly with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), over the hill but with a goddess’s body and a heart of gold to match.  She becomes even more attractive, somehow, with the revelation that she has a 9-year-old son, a point of connection for Randy, who has been estranged from his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) for many years.

After an extreme match with a Mick Foley-esque contender leaves Randy a bloody mess, the wrestler suffers a heart attack, the truth tossed into his face like a cold bucket of water: stop wrestling or you’ll die.  That puts a damper on the road to a rematch with The Ayatollah, rekindling the good ole’ days with a former foe who sells cars now in Arizona.  Think Hulk Hogan taking on The Iron Sheik today, 24 years after the electrifying Madison Square Garden showdown that ushered Hogan to stardom.

But as Randy tries to re-establish his relationship with Stephanie and takes on shifts at the local supermarket (front-of-house and dealing with the public if he has to), the battered hero has a choice to make, more important than life or death: Can he abandon the only family he has left, the fans that make him feel like a god inside the squared circle, the only place he’s ever felt the confidence to be the showman he was born to be?

Evan Rachel Wood and Mickey Rourke in The WrestlerThe film is painfully simple in both its intentions and its approach.  Aronofsky makes plenty of creatively interesting decisions throughout, of course, the consummate artist.  He keeps the camera behind Rourke for the first five minutes or so, never pulling around to his face until we see him balled up in the back of his van for the night.

Another sequence echoes the wrestler’s march to the ring as Randy makes his way through the bowels of the supermarket, eventually brushing the plastic drapes aside and strolling out into the deli department for a day’s work.

But Aronofsky never gets in the way of the story, and he knows the film hinges on its central performance.  Rourke steps up to the plate and then some, offering a warm, lived-in portrayal that truly is one of the finest pieces of work we’ve seen on the screen in quite a while.

The casting decision was a gamble, but one driven by artistic intention: Rourke is Randy Johnson.  He is a once iconic persona that has washed up on the shores of irrelevance.  And the sense throughout is that Rourke knows this; it is doubtful he could have tapped into these actorial reserves otherwise.

Marisa Tomei in The WrestlerMarisa Tomei is sensational in a role that might have just been a chance to take off the clothes, read the lines and cash your check.  She brings a believability to Cassidy that really sparks in a bar sequence that has the two exchange an awkward kiss, her desire briefly apparent until reality snaps her back to the moment.

Evan Rachel Wood, meanwhile, gets a couple of moments to shine, one extended boardwalk sequence in particular that brings her back to childhood, rekindling the father-daughter relationship she lost long ago.  The sequence also provides Rourke’s likely Oscar clip, a tear streaming down his neck as he talks of how he used to pretend Stephanie didn’t exist, now sensing hope in their commiseration.

Aronofsky fills the frame with a slew of muscle-bound professional wrestlers that add an invaluable genuine quality to the narrative, some of the most realistic moments coming in their appreciation and admiration of Randy, the ghost of their profession’s better years walking the halls to this day.  And that’s really the essence of “The Wrestler,” the sense of truth that pokes through the surface of every line, every sequence and surely every performance.

Whether he’s playing an old Nintendo game featuring his younger self with a neighborhood kid or pouring through clothes at a vintage shop for a present for his daughter, Rourke sells the character as a part of himself.  He owns the movie until its vague but poignant conclusion and the first few strums of Bruce Springsteen’s original track filter through over black.  Stunning work from all involved.

→ 12 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Featured · Reviews

12 responses so far

  • 1 11-07-2008 at 9:55 am

    Kokushi said...

    As a fan of wrestling and Aronofsky, i cant wait to see it.

  • 2 11-07-2008 at 10:31 am

    MB said...


    Would you move this into your Top 5 for Best Picture, or at least add it onto the latest poll regarding the predicted Best Picture noms? I’ve seen a few of the contenders, and would rank this ahead of DOUBT and just slightly below SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE.

  • 3 11-07-2008 at 10:34 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I truthfully don’t think the film has a chance in Best Picture so no, I would be moving it into my top 5. That poll is about to close anyway.

  • 4 11-07-2008 at 10:43 am

    Kokushi said...

    Kris, as of right now, which are your top 5 or 10?

  • 5 11-07-2008 at 11:18 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

  • 6 11-07-2008 at 1:23 pm

    The InSneider said...

    But is it in your personal top 5 of the year, not just top 5 in terms of Oscar chances? I’d say of American feature films, not foreign or docs, it’s a top 5 movie this year along Doubt, Rachel Getting Married and The Dark Knight. .. right now.

  • 7 11-07-2008 at 2:22 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Oh, I see. Read that wrong.

    My favorite film of the year is Slumdog, for sure. The Wrestler is probably in the top five. I’ll hammer all that out in the year in review column.

  • 8 11-07-2008 at 4:40 pm

    Ryan said...

    “After an extreme match with a Mick Foley-esque contender leaves Randy a bloody mess…”

    It’s funny, I actually got to meet that guy at an ROH show earlier this year (the company that lent their ring to production for what I believe is the last wrestling sequence in the film). They definitely got the casting right with him, as he had several thumbtacks embedded in the back of his head during our conversation, and blood pouring from a gash above his eye. Hell of a nice guy, though. Only had good things to say about production. So the running joke between my brother and me has been, “FYC: Necro Butcher, Best Supporting Actor in The Wrestler.”

    Nevertheless, glad you liked it as much as you did and can’t wait to see it in the theater. I know there’s been some hesitation about this film’s potential for mainstream success, so I’m curious how you’ll think it’ll do, Kris.

  • 9 11-07-2008 at 5:54 pm

    Adam G. said...

    The Mick Foley-esque match is the second match (maybe the third)- I caught this one in Toronto, and I have to say that match was, hands-down, one of the most brutal, yet darkly hilarious scenes to be in a movie for a long time (that, and it births one of the best lines of the year, having to do with an artificial appendage- truly not to be missed).

  • 10 11-07-2008 at 5:56 pm

    Adam G. said...

    oh- and an addendum to my previous message, it’s Robinson, Kris, not Johnson (unless they changed it)

  • 11 11-08-2008 at 3:12 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    For some reason I remembered Johnson, but I think you’re right. Given his “real” first name.