2008 | Director: Darren Aronofsky (“The Fountain,” “Requiem for a Dream”)| Writer: Robert D. Seigel (Ex-editor of The Onion)
This film got some buzz during the award season, mostly featuring Mickey Rourke’s performance as past-his-prime professional wrestler Randy “The Ram.” Rourke, who himself has had a life spent boxing mostly since his popularity in the 80’s and early 90’s (“Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man,” anybody?) is no stranger to physical activity and it is evident in his fantastic performance.
In terms of direction Aronofsky commits what any 1st year theatre student knows to be a mistake: he shoots Randy while following him from behind. What this clever gimmick achieves is quickly apparent, as we gain the feeling of the wrestler’s size, and in his lumbering and heavy breathing, the sheer painful force of will that he must exert to move his body, a “beat up piece of meat.” In choosing to follow Rourke with a handheld camera in this manner Aronofsky literally gets out of the way and lets Rourke become The Wrestler. This is where the film’s greatest strength lies. Really it is in the performance of Rourke and how he plays this ailing man who is forced to deal with his own mortality.
Most of what we learn about his past is conveyed in an opening collage of a wall of memorabilia and news clippings. As the plot unfolds in the 2 hours of screen time we come to see that, outside of the ring, Randy’s life is pretty miserable. He lives alone in a trailer scrapping out some money at a local grocery store where he does heavy labour working for comedian Todd Barry–who many won’t recognize as the voice of Romulox from ATHF. To relax he goes to the strip club and patronizes Marisa Tomei who, by being a stripper past her prime, serves as a kindred spirit/love interest. At some point Randy has a heart attack and is told he can no longer abuse his body with the drugs he’s been using to keep himself mobile. This motivates him to hunt down his estranged, college-age daughter, with whom he attempts to share a few tender moments with before screwing up and losing her trust yet again.
At this point I’m now confident that Randy’s story is not so much one of redemption as it is a tale of one extremely flawed individual’s struggle to exist and be authentic as a person and at what he does best. Wolverine has a saying in the X-men: “I’m the best there is at what I do.” For Randy this was true at one time, but unfortunately he possesses no mutant healing factor. He hurts and he bleeds for his fans and for their adulation; in this gruesome exhibition we see the absolute drive that Randy has as all too human.
It’s somewhat formulaic and kind of long but ultimately every scene has a purpose and works to reinforce Randy’s desolate situation and provide motivation for why he is willing to risk his life to find peace of mind in the ring. It’s the kind of movie you might watch alone and appreciate best without distraction; it’s also the kind of movie you probably won’t want to see again, but it will evoke emotion and genuine care for this meathead, which is an amazing achievement in and of itself. Rourke may not have deserved the Oscar but he certainly deserved the recognition that he received.
Rating: Three and a half of five stars