There is much buzz about The Wrestler, but most of it is centered on Mickey Rourke's performance. (And if you want to get excited about the Bruce Springsteen song, that is your own business.) If you missed it, Rourke won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama, and it is very likely that he will be battling it out with Sean Penn at the Best Actor Oscar. (I'm convinced that Hollywood is feeling guilty about Proposition 8, and they will try to make it up to us by being generous to Milk. But that is another story.) You will notice, however, that there aren't too many people talking about Robert D. Seigel's amazing scrip or even Darren Aronofsky's talented directing. I would argue that there is a reason for that.
I was fully prepared to be disappointed in The Wrestler. The trailer screamed cliché every time I saw it. An over the hill and down on his luck guy who wants to make good on all he has done bad; his only friend is a stripper with a heart of gold; and he decides now is the time to make an effort with his estranged adult daughter. The tear rolling down the cheek as he pleads his case to his daughter was just too much for me. The only twist that I could see was that the guy with the shit-life flashing before his eyes is a professional wrestler.
I may have been prepared for the overused story and the mawkish dialog, but I was completely unprepared for The Wrestler's tenderness and sheer physicality. Randy 'The Ram' Robinson's longevity in the world of professional boxing is exemplified in this yin-like humanity and yang-like brutality. And now that I think about it, it may also explain his lack of meaningful personal relationships. His professional relationships have more depth than the one he has with the stripper or even his daughter. The moments of sincerity in the locker rooms shared between the wrestlers is like some sort of code of the samurai: the respect and love shown due to a clandestine understanding for one another.
And then there is the physicality. First there is Rourke's surprising gravity and age. The burly and rough man that he has become from his soft and pretty days of 9 1/2 Weeks is unbelievable, and the film is willing to exploit it into art. The second part of this is a testament to the fact that I am not totally desensitized. I'm willing to see people cut out their own tongues and many other unspeakable things, but, I'm sorry, volunteering to be tagged over and over again with a brad gun? I don't think so. The centerpiece fight had me looking at the seat in front of me for it's viscerality. It was all a little too realistic. I'll cry at a movie at the drop of a hat, but admitting defeat in the squeamish department is not something I'm used to doing. To Aronofsky's credit, it's a well edited scene that is meant to drive the point home. He may not have had my defeat in mind, but its obviously a pivotal scene that is meant to blunt and unembellished.
Mickey Rourke is quite remarkable in his role, and no doubt part of it has to do with personal experience. Like most people, I haven't exactly been following Rourke's career, but the film inevitably highlights the fact that he left acting to pursue a boxing career. Honestly, I don't really care much about that, but the reality is that his career choices off the screen translate on the screen. Taking the role was a pretty gutsy move. As much as I think Sean Penn transformed himself into Harvey Milk and was the shining light in a very ho-hum Gus Van Sant movie, I would much rather see Rourke get the little gold man for this one.
Darren Aronofsky has a mixed bag of cult films to his resume, and I would have to say that The Wrestler is by far his most 'mainstream.' Sort of. The Wrestler is certainly not the feel-good movie of the year, I don't care how you look at it. Most will find this film unsettling and unresolved. Even though those are the qualities I admire about it, The Wrestler is bound to disappoint some award-curious viewers. With its moments of graphic violence and unadorned sex and less than happy ending, it may just as easily fall into the film fringes.