By Scott Foundas

It’s been years since pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) left the big-arena circuit (or, rather, had it leave him) for hand-to-mouth bookings in high-school auditoriums and banquet halls. But he still can’t get the roar of the crowd out of his head, regardless of whether he has his hearing aid fitted into place. A lurching mass of steroidal muscle, frosted hair and battle-scarred skin, The Ram still hears his adoring fans even when he’s suiting up to meet a whole other kind of public—namely, the customers queued at the deli counter in a suburban New Jersey supermarket. That’s where The Ram finds himself after a heart attack and bypass surgery put a temporary hiccup in his fight card. But what is a wrestler without the expectant thrill of a clothesline to the neck or a folding chair to the back? Is he, to borrow the logic of The Wrestler, something like corned beef in search of sauerkraut? Does he, perhaps, cease to exist?
Those questions weigh heavy on The Wrestler, which may best be described as an existentialist tragicomedy about the nature of identity and performance, but the movie itself is as light as low-calorie mayonnaise —which is saying a lot when you consider that, in director Darren Aronofsky’s previous film, The Fountain (2006), even a mere snowflake was hunkered down with several tons of symbolic importance. In fact, there was little in Aronofsky’s first three features that didn’t come wrapped in agonized metaphor, and I say that as someone who found Requiem for a Dream (2000) pretty damn brilliant, anthropomorphic televisions and refrigerators notwithstanding. But there’s a subtle feeling of elation that courses through The Wrestler, a welcome sense that Aronofksy isn’t trying so hard to dazzle us, that he has come to embrace the simple but by no means commonplace pleasures of a meaningful story, humanely told. The result is a movie far closer in look and feel to the New American Cinema of the ‘70s (which Aronofsky clearly idolizes) than any of its maker’s more laboured sacrifices at that hallowed altar. I’d say this is the best wrestling movie in memory, but what, really, is the competition: Hulk Hogan in No Holds Barred (1989)?

On paper, The Wrestler may sound like little more (or less) than a down market Rocky Balboa (2007) for the WWE crowd, or even a not terribly interesting Lifetime Original Movie. There is, after all, an estranged Ram offspring (Evan Rachel Wood) to be reckoned with, and Aronofsky’s requisite fantasy woman (remember Jennifer Connelly on the pier in Requiem, and Rachel Weisz floating in interstellar orbit in The Fountain?) — here, a decidedly more tangible, suffer-no-fools stripper played by Marisa Tomei, once again happily flaunting the best over-40 body in Hollywood. But it’s part of what works about The Wrestler that Aronofsky (working, for the first time, from a screenplay he didn’t write himself) transfigures the potentially kitsch into the unexpectedly lived-in, evoking a fine-tuned sense of small-time people and their medium-sized dreams. He engages with the material directly, without a lot of fancy narrative or stylistic footwork, and seems to feel a real affinity for the milieu. You can see it in the detail work, the way Aronofsky prowls every corner of a makeshift backstage area, post-match, until we can all but smell the dried blood and sweat, see the cramped shower stalls looming just off screen. No less striking is the deli counter itself, which feels more shopped-in than a thousand big-budget simulacra.

What fascinates Aronofsky most is the ritualistic cycle of rehearsal and performance enacted by The Ram and his fellow huckster-athletes, which he films with a (Jean-Pierre) Melville-like attention to the minutiae of process. Pro wrestling is “fake”—we all know that, and The Wrestler doesn’t beg to differ. But it delights in the elaborate choreography of a rough-and-tumble Astaire and Rogers: Now comes the part where I pick up the plate-glass window and smash it over your head. Yes, and then I come from behind and plant a few staples in your skull. These scenes of self-imposed grievous bodily harm would be easy enough to play for Jackass-style laughs. Instead, without ever overstating its case, The Wrestler sees these hard-luck gladiators with something like a shabby grandeur. That’s not to say you won’t chuckle when The Ram squares off against an age-old nemesis nicknamed The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller), who waves an Iranian flag as he enters the ring, but such jokes are made in tribute to the characters —and their unwavering sense of vaudevillian showmanship — rather than at their expense. (More than any sports movie, The Wrestler recalls the 1960 Osborne-Richardson-Olivier film The Entertainer, with its defeated song-and-dance man slowly dying on stage).

None of The Wrestler’s penny-ante verisimilitude would be possible without the full commitment of Aronofsky’s cast. He’s always been good with actors, actually, from Ellen Burstyn’s jittery tour-de-force in Requiem to the playing of Weisz and Hugh Jackman in The Fountain—you believed they were in love with each other, which was one of the only things about that movie it was possible to take seriously. Here, The Ayatollah looks like he means business, Tomei seems as organically situated in her workplace as the shiny poles lining the stage, and Wood, though she has the least developed role, is around long enough to invest the film with some of the hard-gotten wisdom of children who learn early that their fathers aren’t heroes.

But this is, as you may have heard, Rourke’s shining hour. What is unavoidable about The Wrestler is that almost everything you can say about Randy “The Ram” Robinson applies equally to the actor playing him—a bit the worse for wear, a few years too many in the tanning bed (even if Rourke has paled considerably from the burnt sienna shade he was radiating in the Wild Orchid era), something less than his initial promise suggested (remember when he was supposed to be the next Brando?), yet hardly down for the count. Whether Rourke, who is now 52 and has some years as an amateur and pro boxer under his belt, has merely sublimated himself into the role or the role has been tailor-made to his specifications hardly matters. Like Brando in Last Tango in Paris (1972) or Robert Ryan in the too-little-seen film version of The Iceman Cometh (1973), there is an extraordinary pathos at work here—the sense of an actor at the end of his tether playing a character at the end of his. There are wonderfully strange and moving scenes, one in which The Ram buys his daughter a gaudy, thrift-store jacket as a present, and another where he joins a neighborhood kid for a round of an old Nintendo wrestling game that features an electronic avatar of himself in more glorious times.

Aronofsky has said before that all of his movies are about the search for God, whether in the numerology of the Kabbalah, at the end of a heroin needle, or in the outer reaches of the galaxy. It would follow logically, then, that The Wrestler is about a man searching for God between the ropes, or in the distance between the top of the corner post and the canvas. More, though, it strikes me as a film about a man’s search for validation and self-worth and his failure to find it in the places (companionship, family) that he thinks he should. The Ram wants to believe in happy endings and his non-existent ability to set everything right, but time and again he is pulled back into the ring, like some primordial creature crawling back into the womb.

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