Full disclosure: My love for Mickey Rourke is pretty boundless. In college, I devoted an entire expose that even lavished praise on such works as the little-seen underrated gem Homeboy (which Rourke wrote) and the misunderstood Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. It is almost as though he has tried throughout the years to pummel away at his good looks, and prove to someone (himself?) that there was much more to the man than his Brando-esque visage suggested.
At a time in his career which many of his peers were bruising their bodies in an attempt to reverse time, he decided to step into the ring as a semi-pro boxer, subjecting himself to beatings no film critic could ever bestow upon him.
That personal history is quite possibly the reason why The Wrestler resonates with such humanity and humility, as Rourke does not portray so much as inhabits the character of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a man hopelessly devoted to the '80s-era heights of his fame that have long passed him by. And yet he is still entering the ring in front of devoted, albeit fewer, fans. His entrance is still set to the solidly '80s metal of Quiet Riot's "Bang Your Head," and his van's stereo is often blasting tunes from other bygone acts such as The Scorpions and Cinderella.
You can almost hear his tendons stretching and snapping after each performance now. And still, he subjects himself to low-rent gigs, hitched onto memories of former glories and the nostalgia of what once was. Scene after scene aches with honesty, from the makeshift matches in which wrestling's washed up and wannabes mingle in high school cafeterias that double as changing rooms, to the quiet moments of Randy desperately extending a crippled hand to his estranged adult daughter.
The one ember of hope in Randy's life comes from Cassidy (played by Marisa Tomei), a stripper whose sympathy for the tough-but-tender wrassler blossoms into friendship. Her predicament is quite similar, in that her career is one defined by her body, and as time begins to erode its youthful elasticity, she can see her shelf-life is nearing its expiration date. As Cassidy, Tomei continues to set the screen ablaze as she did in last year's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. The only criticism is that her role requires her to be rejected by some patrons who mock her age and request another stripper, and I cannot envision a rational person who would ever scoff at the chance for even one minute in the Champagne Room with her.
It's fitting that Bruce Springsteen closes the film, as the entire film unfolds like a dramatization of a character from the musician's catalogue. And the film is director Darren Aronofsky's Nebraska: honest, raw, stark and nakedly personal. The director, who is more known for his flashy, dramatically braided dramas (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain), applied no technical wizardry here, even allowing passing migrating geese to populate the background sound (which, in itself takes on meaning of moving on, something the main character just can't do).
This is not to say that The Wrestler is without its moments of levity. During a shopping trip for Randy's daughter, Cassidy asks him what type of style the girl prefers in clothing: Goth, hippie, preppy? “I think she's a lesbian, does that make a difference?” he cluelessly responds.
Anchoring it all is Rourke, whose performance feels like his entire career has been working toward this role. Battered, bruised, but doggedly determined to stay relevant, Rourke's impassioned pleas for acceptance are heartbreaking and captivatingly honest. In one brief bit between Randy and his daughter (played by Evan Rachel Wood, whose career is littered with parts like this), it plays almost like an off-camera confessional from Rourke himself. The scene is vaguely similar to one in this year's JCVD, in which Jean Claude Van Damme places his muscular heart squarely on his sleeve.
The Wrestler explores no new ground thematically, but demonstrates that, in the right hands with the right actors, even time-tested tales can be polished off and presented anew with astounding results.