Last year I was one of the few people to write a positive review of Darren Aronofsky's last film, The Fountain. It was a film that alienated some of his widening audience due to its lack of convention and sadly Aronofsky's bravery in creating an uncompromising artistic vision was not received as well as his first two pictures. What he has done here with The Wrestler is heed the complaints and attempt to come up with a film that pleases his hardcore art-house fan-base while at the same time reaching a wider audience. To do this the director has shaken off stylistic flashiness and high concept narrative in favour of a low key personal drama/sports movie.
Randy 'The Ram' Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is an aging WWF style wrestler, scratching out a living as a labourer in the week and professional part time wrestler at the weekends. The problem is, his body isn't what it used to be. After suffering a heart attack Randy is forced to face up to life outside the ring, including a tentative relationship with a stripper (Marisa Tomei) and an attempt to salvage a family connection with estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachal Wood).
As the brief synopsis implies, the script, penned by Robert D. Siegel, is pretty standard, although solid suffers from containing none of Aronofsky's own writing flair. But what could have been so easily cheesy and melodramatic in the hands of other directors is masterfully subdued and coaxed into a touching, yet never over sympathetic, piece of film making. The camerawork is mostly handheld and intimate. We literally follow Rourke's character from the off, as he makes a weary journey home after a fight. This opening sequence is a great example of one of the underpinning themes of the movie – it's all about the backstage, the leaving and the aftermath. How do you feel after the fight is over? Or when your career is over? And this is a man whose life has been his career. In many ways The Wrestler is an antithesis to the Rocky movies. Emotionally and morally it has no investment in the violence portrayed. He is not managing to confront any demons in the ring, nor is this an epic battle to show he can still do it, like the most recent Rocky offering. What 'The Ram' does is staged and planned out before hand, so winning is never a concern! Although there are fights in the film they are never set pieces. A particularly gruelling wrestling sequence is intercut with Randy post-fight backstage, the elation of the crowd and the adrenaline of the fight is juxtaposed with seeing the agonising result of each blow – cuts being dressed, glass removed from gashes. This is the real world of wrestling.
A film of this type does not have such obvious plotting as Rocky either, more in line with Lars Von Trier directing Raging Bull. That's not to say the stripper love interest and estranged daughter aren't a little obvious devices, but Aronofsky uses a realism that he has never shown before in making the seemingly inconsequential moments as important as eventful and obviously emotive scenes (thus inviting allusions to Von Trier). Clint Mansell shows restraint in the score too, never whacking the audience over the head in emotional moments with soaring strings, yet still managing to keep the tone poignant when necessary.
The performances are the second thing that raises The Wrestler above the average. The best word to describe Mickey Rourke's performance is honest. Aronofsky uncovers the tough mask of Randy enough to show a real vulnerability that is impossible not to engage with. It is in his subtle sadness and resignation later in the film that Rourke really shines, and it's great to see him confident enough to throw himself into such a challenging and largely understated role. The support is all brilliant, from Tomei's conflicted stripper mum and Wood's distant and angry teenager to all manner of real wrestler cameos, the world that Robinson lives in is a believable and identifiable one.
I won't give too much away here, but there is no nice happy ending. No Rocky/Randy holding the title aloft amid a proud and jubilant crowd. But what we do get to see is that in the world of theatrical wrestling there is no real winner, in or out of the ring.
This is probably not Aronofsky's greatest in terms of creativity and scope and I'm not even sure if it's Rourke's. But it is an exceptional film in demystifying the world of wrestling, and showing a personal struggle against age and the consequences of a career in the public gaze, with a keen and honest eye. I would not say it is a return to form, as I think The Fountain is a criminally underrated film, but more a continuation of quality. If nothing more, The Wrestler heralds the arrival of an exceptionally talented director into mainstream cinema and the reinvigoration of an until now underrated actor.