Film Review: The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke gives a spectacular performance, heart-rending and true, which should induce showers of awards on this comeback kid.

Hollywood loves a good comeback story, which should make the heretofore troubled Mickey Rourke a leading contender for the Best Actor Oscar for his searing turn in The Wrestler. Darren Aronofsky has taken the ever-potent “Champ” formula, which has basically served most boxing films in memory—the down-and-out has-been, one-time winner in the ring, full-time loser in life, prepping for one last do-or-die contest—and set it in the more dubious, sleazier world of professional wrestling.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke) has fallen far from his ’80s glory days in the ring, living in a trailer and doing his stuff in second-rate venues like school gyms. His personal life is particularly sad and lonely, as he tries to connect with a local stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), as well as his bitter, estranged lesbian daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). His fighting days are definitely numbered, especially after a particularly brutal bout which brings on a heart attack, but, as these things always seem to go, there is still one last, desperate fight in him.

You can surmise from the plot that the script by Robert Siegel isn’t any great, original shakes, but it does capture the gritty authenticity of the world of pro wrestling and is matched by Aronofsky’s avid directorial immersion in it. Sequences featuring Randy’s interplay with the other wrestlers (many of them the real thing) as they banter and pre-choreograph their moves provide the film’s most entertaining moments. The bouts themselves are filmed with an electrifying intensity that is both compelling and repulsive (especially when a staple gun is introduced at one point). In the more intimate scenes involving Randy and the women in his life, the movie becomes very predictable, all “Gee, Champ you just don’t get it, do ya?” leaving Rourke to do his New Jersey version of Pagliacci.

But, from his first onscreen moments, the ravaged Rourke has the earned, accumulated weight of experience, both acting-wise and from life itself, and is never less than riveting to watch. That once light Irish voice of his has become gruffer to match and, although his written lines may not be poetry, we hang on every word. The professional humiliations he undergoes are played with the utmost simplicity and truth—you’re never aware of any sentimental grandstanding—which make scenes like the desolate autograph show he wearily shows up for, arranging his tawdry souvenir merchandise on a card table, or his cut-rate preparation for a climactic bout, instant tan and peroxide applied before a men’s room mirror, all the more rending.

Tomei gives her all, especially in the club scenes, cavorting on the pole like a seasoned vet, and is very funny, disarmingly spouting lines from The Last Temptation of Christ to Randy, but there’s a certain emotional thinness in her very proficiency which precludes total empathy. Wood does what she can with her too sparsely conceived role. The film is really all Rourke’s, and eminently worth seeing for him.