The Wrestler is one of those films that comes to release already laden with praise of the highest order. A crowd and critic favourite of the Toronto International Film Festival, particularly because of the performance of its lead Mickey Rourke, a film this highly praised is always in danger of disappointing once a wider audience has a chance to see it.
But is it over-praised? Not in the slightest; the praise is entirely warranted but slightly one-sided. Although the performance of Mickey Rourke as a "broken down piece of meat" is quite stunning, there's more to this emotional, strangely touching, and at times heart-wrenching film.
The Wrestler tells the story of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a former god of the professional wrestling world now reduced, 20 years later, to a man past his prime but still clinging to his glory days. He thrives on the admiration of his dwindling fan base. He still wrestles so he can try to pay his rent before his landlord kicks him out, and out with his physical activity he is alone, working at any job that pays. His only contact with someone that even resembles a friend is with a stripper whose glory days are also behind her.
But following an unexpected heart attack after an unusually brutal match, he is told by his doctor to either stop wrestling or risk his life. He has to now re-assess his life, deciding to pluck up the courage to try and reconcile things with his daughter who he abandoned when she was a little girl and to start a relationship with his stripper friend.
As is inevitable, but never understandable, the studio has marketed The Wrestler as only part of what is actually is. The adverts and posters play up the wrestling part of the story (along with, of course, the much used positive critic quotes) but that's only a small part of it. At its heart The Wrestler is subtle character study of a man broken and past his prime, just trying to make ends meet and live in any way he can. Rourke's role as Randy is his first fully three-dimensional character in a very long time and will most likely be remembered as a career-defining performance. He plays the character with much needed subtlety and sensitivity, never once overplaying it. He plays Randy always as a believable, real human being instead of a two-dimensional character. He's already won Best Actor honors at the Golden Globes and it's not outside the realm of possibility that he could nab the Oscar too. And he thoroughly deserves it.
Randy's story is almost a direct reflection of Rourke's as an actor – once big but then suddenly, because of some bad life choices, he was no one. As an actor, however, Rourke didn't, as some may think, completely quit the job. He appeared in many roles during the '80s, '90s and early 2000s although they were less significant roles that many wouldn't even have realised it was him. But Rourke has clawed his way back to the top with his performance here, a complex, understated portrayal of a character that he practically was born to play.
Why it's the central performance that gets all the attention and not so much the movie itself is because of the way director Darren Aronofsky has chosen to film it. It's very much like a "fly on the wall" documentary as we get up close and personal with the central figure. We are next to him as he sleeps, sitting in the passenger seat as he drives, and following adamantly behind, peeking over his shoulder like an eager fan looking for an autograph. There are no remnants of Aronofsky's directing style from his past work, such as his enigmatic Pi and stunningly bleak Requiem for a Dream (we can forgive the misstep of The Fountain). He refrains from overdoing every aspect of The Wrestler, striking just the right balance of stark realism and charming subtlety.
What The Wrestler does when tackling the sport of professional wrestling is condemn it as well as celebrate it. It reminds us throughout of both sides; it shows on the one hand that although the outcome may be fixed there is real danger in the act of wrestling. There is blood often spilled, bones broken – people do genuinely get hurt and all in the name of entertainment, all so people can watch from over the rails and shout for more from people who are effectively just "slabs of meat" (as Randy states at one point) there for the crowd's enjoyment.
But it also celebrates the fact that these wrestlers become like gods to fans of the sport; the noise of hearing your name being chanted by adoring fans must be like unlike anything else for these people. And it's in that way that the film will hit anyone who was at any time a wrestling fan on a gut level others won't appreciate. The realistic way these particular scenes are filmed remind us of how we could have possibly thought at one point that it wasn't a fixed act but oh so real. It's an admirable ode to a sport not as widely popular as it once used to be.
But as said, The Wrestler isn't primarily about the sport but a man still clinging onto it, to the potential glory it represents. The real strengths of the film lie both in the performance of Rourke and study of the character he plays. What's crucial in a film like this is that we care for the character, that we want to find out what becomes of him and follow him on the rocky road there. Randy's relationship with his daughter isn't introduced until about halfway through the film but immediately we feel a connection with that part of his life because of how real it feels, how believable. In these scenes Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Randy's bitter daughter, gets to further establish herself as an up-and-coming actress to watch out for – she's emotional during most of the time we see her but she never overdoes it, even when she's shouting in anger at her abandoning father.
And although it seems in retrospect somewhat inevitable, we still embrace the fact that he tries to take the relationship with his stripper friend to the next level, a role played with great conviction by Marisa Tomei. This is a role where she could have just taken her clothes off (which is done in a realistic but never a lingering way) on-screen and collected the paycheck but Tomei gives more to the role than that – she rounds it out into believability thus becoming more than just eye candy.
The Wrestler has a special quality that's seldom seen in that it just follows the life of its central character in a way that feels literally like you're peering in through a window or standing invisible in rooms you have no right to be in. The drama, the heartbreak, the misery, the emotion – all of what you could hope for from such a film is very much present. But what's important is that it never gets preachy, melodramatic, or sappy even at times when it would be understandable and even forgivable.
Because of the straightforward approach of Aronofsky he never manipulates or gets in the way of the character study. He knows that the whole thing hinges on the central performance and doesn't jeopardise that by trying anything fancy. And while the ending is perhaps a bit predictable it's nonetheless fitting, leaving us with a final few seconds that are both vague yet poignant. Just beautiful.