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The Wrestler (2008)

  • Review: *** ½ (out of ****)
  • Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Mark Margolis, Todd Barry, Wass Stevens
  • Director: Darren Aronofsky
  • Screenplay: Robert D. Siegel
  • Length: 109 min.
  • MPAA Rating: R

The world of professional wrestling has long been accused of faking events to capture the audience's attention. The Wrestler is anything but fake as it takes an unflinching look into the life of an aging wrestler.

Randy 'The Ram' Robinson (Mickey Rourke) has spent much of his life in the ring. He enjoys the spectacle, the sensation and the celebrity that accompanies the performance. To an extent, he even seems to enjoy putting himself through physical pain while doing so, something visualized on a number of occasions in the film. For the audience, who only knows his work in the ring, The Ram is a larger than life figure who has a glorious life as a professional wrestler.

But, once he's off the stage, The Ram is no better or worse than anyone else, suffering the same slings and arrows that many of us go through in the normal course of our lives. He is in love with an aging stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) with whom he spends a great deal of time despite her persistent admonitions that she must work, but like him, she is well past the age of youthfulness that dominates their professions.

When The Ram has a heart attack shortly after a match, he begins looking at life differently, but not by his own choice. His doctor has said that continuing to perform as a wrestler may have the unwanted side effect of killing him. So, he embarks on a road of retirement, hoping to capture life before his is taken. Cassidy is concerned about his health, but when he wants to take things farther and marry her, she takes a step back and suggests instead of looking to her for companionship, he should try to make amends with his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) whom he abandoned several years prior.

The film's title is not just representative of The Ram's chosen profession. It is also representational of the characters in the film. The Ram must wrestle all of his inner demons and imperfections to hopefully reclaim some vitality in his life. Cassidy wrestles with aging in an industry that favors youth while also struggling with her feelings towards The Ram, a man whom she would fit well with but fails to live up to her personal expectations of a lifetime partner. Stephanie must tangle with her emotions as she at first rejects the man who spurned her as a child and then learns to love despite some obvious and apparent flaws.

Darren Aronofsky has explored the world of inner demons previously in the masterful Requiem for a Dream wherein four individuals, each relatively different in personality, share a common problem: drug addiction. Here, the characters aren't so easily connected, but each must come to terms with their own emotions. In addition, whereas Requiem gave almost equal time to the four main characters, this film focuses more on the central figure of the film, The Ram, and less so on his emotional interests, which seem to be as much flesh-and-blood characters as thematic foils.

More than anything, Aronofsky let's his actors tell the story and they are each quite successful. Tomei, who may have gotten flack in the past for her shocking win at the Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress for My Cousin Vinny, has continuously proven that she has serious acting chops and this is one of her best performances yet, easily surpassing her work in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Wood, who has been a mainstay of the indie circuit for years and has remained true to her acting credentials while many her age try to become popular and thus earn more money, has a very limited role in the film, but leaves a lasting impression in her brief, but pivotal scenes.

Though these ladies deliver fine performances, the movie belongs to its star. Rourke seems the perfect fit for this role having gone through similar hurdles shortly after his rise to fame in the 1980s. His personal life had begun to overshadow his acting work before he left the film business to return to a different ring, the boxing ring, feeling he was a disservice to the acting profession. The Wrestler is almost metaphorical, making Rourke the perfect actor to take it on. And what a performance he gives. From the opening scenes following him from behind as he prepares to enter the ring for the first time, to the bitter climax, Rourke is a riveting figure. His swift descent into mediocrity and depression is as emotionally challenging as anything an actor could possibly face and he never makes it look like he's trying. The effortless nature of the performance may be its most defining quality.

When watching a film like this, you can't let any result surprise you. Aronofsky has seldom delivered conventional endings with his unconventional features. It's almost like you would expect something catastrophic at the end of his films. The Wrestler certainly doesn't disappoint, delivering very few joyful moments, but the final scene is an evocative bittersweet one that you might feel is a bit abrupt, but when examined later is perfectly fitting.