Sunday, January 11, 2009


Review: The Wrestler
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Those of you who'll be participating in an Oscar pool with friends or colleagues this year would be wise to check off Mickey Rourke in the category of Best Actor. Like Charlize Theron's serial killer in "Monster" or Forest Whitaker's dictator in "The Last King of Scotland," Rourke's starring role in director Darren Aronofsky's painfully human character study, "The Wrestler," is one that comes around once in a lifetime. That he tears through it like lacerated flesh and has emerged the comeback kid of 2008 (sorry, Robert Downey Jr.) are only further incentives for Academy voters to take notice. If anyone's poised to rob Sean Penn of his second gold statue, it's Rourke, who you'd think spent his time away from the spotlight consulting the ghost of Laurence Olivier. As Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed-up and broken-down pro wrestler still clinging to his glory days in the '80s, Rourke creates an unfeigned, audacious self portrait. What Aronofsky and writer Robert D. Siegel create is a low-budget flick that's more captivating than most multi-million dollar blockbusters.

Best known for the daredevil stylistics of “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain,” Aronofsky proves equally capable of stripping things down to their gritty core. Often shot with handheld cameras and finished with Eastwood-like minimalism, “The Wrestler” looks and feels as bruised and battered as its central character. It's a tactful aesthetic decision by Aronofsky, whose intuition to step back and let Rourke's acting and Siegel's writing flex their muscles is a model of restraint. His movie, set in the unremarkable city of Elizabeth, NJ, plays like the tragic memoirs of a dying king. He opens it with a credit sequence that's bursting with '80s nostalgia, from the tacky wrestling propaganda posters to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle font. When we meet Randy in present day, he's in his weather-worn 40s, and he's gearing up for a wrestling match in a...high school gym. Such humdrum gigs are the only ones he can land nowadays and, since he apparently lacks any other skills, the poor demand is taking its toll on his wallet. He's been evicted from his trailer for failure to pay rent; he's got a part-time deli job that's more appropriate for a college freshman; and he can barely afford to maintain his image via tanning, steroids, weightlifting, and bleaching his shoulder-length, rock star mane. Oh yeah, and he's got a daughter who he hasn't seen in years and to whom he surely isn't sending monthly checks.

But he has wrestling. Aronofsky and Siegel do an incredible job of illustrating the world of performance fighters with documentary-style fascination, exposing the behind-the-scenes choreography and the lengths to which these guys will go to put on a good show (Randy keeps a razor blade stashed under his wrist tape so he can create real blood effects – a.k.a., cut himself). Whether or not everything that's depicted is accurate is up for debate, but it certainly got my attention. There's something very raw and true about sports that take place within a ring, which is probably why the movies about them are the greatest sports films of all time. Caught inside that roped-in square, under blinding spotlights before a screaming crowd, is humanity at its most animalistic – bloody, sweaty, carnal, and vulnerable. It's powerful enough to make stories about baseball seem childish in comparison. In this tradition, “The Wrestler” stands among classics like “Rocky” and “Raging Bull.” In a more literary sense, it resembles immortal works like “Oedipus” or “Death of a Salesman.” Randy is like the Willy Loman of pro wrestling, refusing to let go of unreachable dreams while the rest of his life crumbles around him. A sudden heart attack after a particularly gruesome match brings him a much-needed moment of reflection, and it brings the movie a perfectly-timed opportunity for greater depth.

The incident allows Aronofsky to shift “The Wrestler” into a lower gear, inviting in two additional characters to colorize his dark palette. Marisa Tomei, an actress who seems to get better with every film, plays Pam, a local stripper and single mother whose alias, “Cassidy,” isn't the only falsehood she uses for self-defense. Evan Rachel Wood, an actress who's bound to mature one of these days, plays Randy's estranged daughter, Stephanie. For better or worse, the two women awaken things in Randy that were long buried beneath his blind ambition and delusions of grandeur. Particularly, the relationship he forms with Pam reminds him (and her) how to live life as it happens, and the exchanges between the actors are highly realistic and quietly tender (watch for a brief scene inside a bar where the two bond while reminiscing and the whole world seems to fall away). Tomei convinces you that Pam is a living, breathing, struggling person and her ingenuous skills are well suited to the material. Wood exhibits growth as a performer but still has a long way to go; her turn is a bit noisy even for a noisily written character, and it's all the more conspicuous in a film that's as notable for its subtleties as it is for its brutality. Rourke remains the main event throughout, clawing his way through scenes like a world-weary grizzly bear. His indelible performance is layered with laughs, tears, truths, and surprises, and he keeps you hooked right up to the film's decidedly unsentimental final moment.

“The Wrestler,” admittedly, is not for everyone. Squeamish viewers and those who like their movies nice and pretty are better suited for a date with “Benjamin Button.” But in the pursuit of great drama, passing by this carefully nurtured gem would be a big mistake. Similar to the bar scene with Randy and Pam, it wraps you up in its gripping story until the rest of the world falls away. Aronofsky, who won the Golden Lion for Best Director at 2008's Venice Film Festival, and Rourke, who's collected a slew of critics' awards and nominations, both deliver career-best work, collaborating on a project that's the cinematic equivalent of a body slam.


Sally Belle said...

I agree with a lot of what you say here...I lLOVED The Wrestler.
But, I can't agree with your take on Wood's performance.
I have an insider's view on this one, and I know that there was an early scene with Wood and Rourke that got cut from the film that explained a bit more her intense anger. The scene as filmed involved Stephanie seeking out her father as part of her 12 step program for recovering alcoholics. She went to make amends with her father, and he blew her off.

Then, as seen, after his heart attack, he comes to her. So, naturally, she's pretty pissed. He has been absent her whole life...he wasn't there for her when she asked him to be, and then he waltzes back into her life. She decides to trust him one last time, and he, once again, selfishly forgets her.
Wood was responding to Aronofsly's direction as well, which was to get in Rourke's face and be unmerciful.
I personally found her very real with every last nerve exposed.
You obviously have never been a young woman with an absent father, as I have been.
I would have reacted with no less anger and pain.

Tomei...had a easier job, and not only do I think she phoned it in a bit...but, that was the word form the set as well. She was none too happy to be there until the film started winning awards.

Hope you re-think your accessment of Wood. Who is, I think, a balls to the wall actor.

Kurtis O said...

I didn't spend too much time criticizing Wood because I wasn't extremely bothered by her performance. But it was distracting. Regardless of what went on behind the scenes with Tomei, what ended up on film feels totally natural, as does the movie itself. While her character's anger was more than justified, Wood was the only part of "The Wrestler" that felt even the least bit forced to me. As I said, there is visible growth here, but I'm waiting for Wood to reach that point professionally where she isn't so quick to light the over-the-top fuse. To me, her work in "Thirteen" remains her best because she was playing a volatile, immature teenager. I'm waiting for her to show me something more. It's coming, but I only saw a glimmer of it in "The Wrestler."

Interesting info about what got cut. (I'm trying to decide if I wish they kept it.)

Thanks for your comment.

Sally Belle said...

Well...keeping the scene certainly would have made Ram a less lovable from the get go. We know he has been an absent father...but, it's another thing to actually see him so emersed in his own world that he doesn't even give his daughter the time of day when she needs it, and asks for it.

I'm not sure if I agree with the cut or not either. It may have made him more interesting...surely he would have been more of a narcissist taken to the mat by life.

At any each his own...but, I prefer Wood's all in approach to , say, Kristen Stewart's always bored approach, or Scarlett's always boobed approach to acting.

I certainly think Wood's Upside of Anger performance is sweet and not a lit fuse. Also, although the movie is badly directed...Pretty Persuasion certainly offers a different aspect of the teenage mind, and a subtle performance that could have been evil over the top.

Also, I was a fan of Once And Again, and the work Wood did on that show was mature and quite astounding for a teen.

So, yes, I am a fan in general. I hope that she will, like Holly Hunter one of my idols, be able to find interesting and strong female roles in the future.

Kurtis O said...

"or Scarlett's always boobed approach to acting. "

I love that -- so true. And it shows no signs of stopping. Essentially, her only scene in the trailer for "He's Just Not That Into You" has her disrobing.

Good insights, Sally. We'll both keep our fingers crossed for Ms. Wood.

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