The plot of The Wrestler is nothing new. It follows a familiar comeback formula, but it shines by turning convention on its head. We shudder at the thought of Rourke's battered character Randy "The Ram" Robinson stepping in the ring again for a few wrinkled dollar bills and nearly cheer when he contemplates retirement. But the gritty realism, honest performances and tight storytelling drive this moving character study. We know Randy's time has come and gone, but he doesn't. The parallels to Rourke begin immediately - physically battered, broken down, beat up, empty and drained, he still clings to some kind of hope for redemption, or at least another shot.
We find The Ram living in a trailer or sleeping in his van, working in a supermarket to pay the bills, while wrestling on the weekends at the American Legion. Punch-drunk and wallowing in solitude, Ram can't change, but the wrestling ring is becoming a cage. After a near-death experience, he tries to put his life together.
Getting in touch with his inner beast, Rourke dominates 99.9 percent of the screen time. Only a few times does The Ram resemble Rourke. Gone are the chiseled features of yester year, replaced with a battered and bloated visage. He lifts weights, colors his hair, tans, and tosses back his long blond mane to adjust his hearing aid. And Rourke nails every stroke, painting The Ram with all the right flourishes.
Marisa Tomei plays Cassidy (the stripper Ram falls for) and tears up the screen with a multidimensional take on another soul who is hanging on a little too long, earning jeers as well as tips from some of her younger clients. Evan Rachel Wood appears as The Ram's almost-grown daughter, Stephanie, who wants to despise her father for abandoning her to chase his long gone glory. All three characters are bruised, emotionally scarred, or tainted by life's cruel twists of fate. They all have problems seemingly too enormous to deal with.
Not one performance slips by; they all surge with heartrending pain from way, way down deep. My only gripe was that the daughter/father relationship at times feels contrived, but then again it allows some of the best acting in the movie. No matter how incredulous the script, the knockout, cliché-free performances are all worthy of the praise and attention, so any flaws are easily overlooked.
Director Darren Aronofsky shows an impressive style that's a departure from his previous films (Pi, Requiem for a Dream). Shooting in cinema vérité, he does a bang-up job with the hand-held camera, following characters with long un-edited shots, often focusing on Rourke's top-knot/ponytail. Aronofsky also employs a soundtrack that's laden with heavy metal glam rock, emphasizing Ram's hold on the past.
Simple yet powerful, The Wrestler is drenched in pathos and bathed in heartbreak, but somehow it manages to rise above it all. After seeing this movie I thought I could easily go about my day, but Randy The Ram remained in my head. Rourke as the puffy behemoth steeped in shame has done the impossible. He creates a modern day Jake LaMotta, with a depth and honesty that borders on haunting. It's a helluva performance. Long live Mickey Rourke.The Wrestler ★★★★✩
Starring Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Rated R.