“You’ve got a lot of ability kid. Just remember the people driving the cadillacs, the politics.”
With this advice to a younger wrestler, Mickey Rourke delivers both a sombre analysis of his own career and one of the finest performances in contemporary American cinema. His face beaten to shit, two divorces, and the best part of twenty years confined in Hollywood purgatory behind him, Rourke inhabits the role of ‘broken down piece of meat’ Randy “The Ram” Robinson, in the way few actors (not least of whom Nicolas Cage) could ever dream of. As much of a comback for director Darren Aronofsky after the failure of The Fountain, this fable of a former superstar’s last chance at greatness goes beyond mere career rehabilitation, to reach the highest level of cinematic artistry.
Locked out of his trailer, sleeping in his van and working in a deli, Randy lives for the weekend (‘Isn’t that when you sit on other guy’s faces?’ asks his sarcastic porn-loving manager). On Sauturday nights in small high school gyms, Randy bursts through the curtain to the riffs of eighties metal, baptising himself in the cheers of fanatical fans before delivering his highflying ‘Ram Jam’ to his prone opponents. On the horizon is a rematch marking the twentieth anniversary of his Madison Square Garden sell out fight against his greatest opponent, The Ayatollah.
The look in Rourke’s eyes should be enough to put his name on that Oscar immediately.
Randy is THE WRESTLER in capital letters. In the same way that De Niro’s La Motta defined himself solely as the animal he was when he stepped through the ropes, Randy maintains his blond locks, taught physique and trash-talking demeanour well into middle age. When he suffers a heart attack after a brutal fight against real-life wrestler Necro Butcher (in which a staple gun, glass, steel chairs, ladders, barbed wire and a prosthetic leg all come into play), Randy is forced to re-evaluate who he is. Crucial to this soul searching are the aging stripper he loves, Pam (the excellent Marisa Tomei) and his estranged daughter, Stephanie (a poor Evan Rachel Wood). The parallels between old strippers and wrestlers are easy to make, but Rourke and Tomei play their roles with such subtlety that this symbolism never overburdens the film. Both live in a world of performance, each playing to an audience; living a half-life, in which Robin Ramzinski reinvents himself as “The Ram”, and mother and vintage clothes fan Pam puts on and then takes off her costume to become her own alter-ego Cassidy. The relationship they share is beautifully restrained, Pam entering it with the same trepidation that Randy displays backstage before the fight that brings on his heart attack.
The scenes with Evan Rachel Wood are less successful; Wood essentially playing the same estranged daughter that everyone does. There is however one moment of real poetry between the two. Attempting to atone for his past sins, Randy and Stephanie spend a day together, breaking into an abandoned ballroom where they share a dance. Despite the choreography of his profession, Stephanie is surprised at Randy’s competence as a dancer. The way in which the movement they share sparks a connection between them is Godard-like in its execution, and when Stephanie touches her father’s arm afterwards, the look in Rourke’s eyes should be enough to put his name on that Oscar immediately.
A director of real flair, Aronofsky returns to the lo-fi sensibility of his debut feature Pi, avoiding one of his most distinctive traits, the ‘hip-hop’ montage. In Requiem for a Dream, these rapid fire cuts highlighted both the process of preparing a fix, and the youthful naievity and exuberance with which the characters came up. Here, the camera lingers on Randy as he methodically shaves his arm-pits, dyes his hair, shoots steroids, and cuts up the razor blade that will bring on the mid fight ‘juice’; all the time trough tired eyes. Rocky is an obvious reference point, but the documentary style of the film; shooting characters from behind; handheld camera movements; Aronofsky’s refusal to beatify the characters, places the film at an opposite end of the spectrum from Stallone’s combination of all-Americanism and On the Waterfront homage. Long tracking shots follow Randy through the deli, the strip club and the street. These shots mirror Randy’s walk to the ring, showing him to be alien to a world that exists beyond the ropes and turnbuckles. Aronofsky nods to Peckinpah in the way he frames the sadness of a man out of his own time, when one last score becomes one last fight.
The Wrestler is the work of three incredible talents at the peak of their powers. Should Rourke and Tomei return to the popcorn world of Robert Rodriguez and Adam Sandler films it would be a shame. Aronofsky is reportedly attached to a remake of RoboCop, and how that turns out is anyone’s guess. Yet, with The Wrestler, they have created one of the finest films of the decade, and Rourke in particular has proven himself, wherever the current awards pandemonium takes him, to be every bit the heir to Brando that he was predicted to be nearly thirty years ago.