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“I’m Still Here.” — Josh Reviews The Wrestler

February 13th, 2009

Every so often, we get to witness a magical synthesis between actor and role that takes a quality piece of material and elevates it to something really special.  Mickey Rourke burst onto the movie scene in the early eighties in films such as Body Heat and Diner.  But if you’ve heard or read anything about The Wrestler, then you probably know all about his subsequent fall from grace.  He started to gain a reputation for mis-behaving on set — showing up late, not learning his lines — and then he quit acting in order to become a professional boxer.  After a brutal four years (which resulted in the destruction of his movie-star good lucks) he returned to acting, only to appear in bomb after bomb.  (You can visit his imdb profile to check out the long list of films he appeared in in the nineties and early aughts that I guarantee you’ve never heard of.)

In The Wrestler, Rourke stars as Randy “the Ram” Robinson.  In the eighties, he was an enormously successful wrestler.  But those days are long past, and when we meet Randy in the opening scenes of The Wrestler, he has become “an old, broken-down piece of meat” (as he describes himself later in the film).  His face and his body have been battered by decades of wrestling, he needs a hear-ing aid to hear properly, and he devours pain-killers to manage his constant-pain.  He still wrestles, but mostly before light crowds in school gymnasiums.  His days of glory are just a memory.

What we know of Rourke’s life over the past two decades inevitably colors our perspective of the Ram.  Rourke doesn’t even need to say anything — just a look at his broken face says it all.  Although the details are different, in many ways Rourke’s story IS that of the Ram’s, to such a degree that it is impossible to imagine any other actor in the role.  This gives a powerful, additional level of resonance to the story.

But Rourke doesn’t rest on his personal similarities with his character.  In every scene, in every moment, in every little look and gesture, he uses his acting abilities — which are still quite formidable — to create an iconic performance.  The Ram is an enormous mountain of a man — yet also a figure of surprising gentleness, which we see in the way he interacts with the neighborhood kids, in his kindness to his fans, and in the way he reaches out to his estranged daughter.  But he is also prone to making bad decisions, and consistently tripping up his own good efforts at creating or maintaining relationships with others.

The Ram’s closest personal connection in the film is with a stripper, Cassidy, played by Marisa Tomei.  Although at first they seem to be polar opposites, people from different worlds, but as we get to know them both we discover that the two characters are alike in many ways.  Both are looking for a real connection with someone (as opposed to the  shows they put on for their fans and clients, whether in the ring or in the strip club).  In many ways, The Wrestler is a film about loneliness.  It is about the ways in which imperfect people react to living past their prime, and feeling trapped in a life that is not the one they dreamed of.  I must confess to never having been a big fan of Marisa Tomei, but after having seen her fierce performances in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead last year and now The Wrestler, I am eager to see what she does next.  I hope she is able to find some equally substantial parts.

I loved Darren Aronofsky’s last film, The Fountain.  Although I was a bit befuddled by its twisty story-line, it was clearly the work of a confident director with an interesting visual style and a great way with his actors.  The Wrestler is filmed in a much different style — it has a grittier, more hand-held look to it, which perfect suits the tale being told.  In many scenes the camera seems to perch right on the Ram’s shoulder, putting us right in the middle of his circumstances.  I love the slow visual way in which Aronofsky introduces us to the Ram — for the first several minutes of the film, we follow the Ram around without ever seeing his face.  Aronofsky teases us — we see a glance here, an almost-turn there — before we finally get a look at his weary, beaten-up visage.  It is great fun to watch such a talented, confident director at work.  

The Wrestler is a brutal film.  It is a sad story, and the glimpses we get of the Ram’s life in the ring are  visceral and unpleasant.  There are three major fights in the film, and the middle one is the most horrible — it made me rather nauseous, in fact!  So be warned about that.  But don’t let that discourage you from seeing the film, either.  I was really shaken by this little story of a broken-down old wrestler, and I found myself often thinking about it in the days after seeing the film.  It is a well-crafted, well-acted story.  Can’t ask for too much more than that.

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