Rourke astonishes in superb ‘Wrestler’

Joe Cramer

Few films are as blessed as the modern masterpiece, “The Wrestler.” Succeeding on virtually every level of filmmaking, it represents a rare convergence of actor, role and plot for which filmmakers wait their entire careers. 

A thematically rich and brutally honest story of redemption, failure and of a life wasted, “The Wrestler” is an undeniable triumph and a testimony to the power of film.

Shot in an appropriately and starkly simple style, “The Wrestler” tells the story of Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a 1980s wrestling star who is now desperately trying to hold on to what little career he has left.

Barely making enough money to get by between his low-level matches and his part-time job at a supermarket, Robinson is the portrait of a man broken down by fame and poor decision, both in his career and his personal life.

During a particularly brutal match, he has a heart attack and is subsequently informed by his doctor that his body, worn down by age and steroid use, can no longer handle the strain of wrestling. In one moment, all that Robinson has based his life and his identity on is taken away, and he is forced to reexamine his life.

On the surface, “The Wrestler” is a simple, linear film, much more conventional than Aronofsky’s labrynthine previous films, such as “The Fountain” and “Requiem for a Dream.”

Yet this simplicity evidently allows Aronofsky to explore the complexities within the core characters who define this film.  The result is a much more consistent and satisfying film than he has ever made before.

As Robinson, stripped of all that defines him, struggles to find meaning in his life, he attempts to reconnect with the daughter he left behind as a child (Evan Rachel Wood). The relationship between these two is the heart of the film, encapsulating the damage he caused in his past and the amends he is trying to make for the future.

His daughter serves as a glimpse into his selfishly led past, but also the promise of redemption and meaning in his future.

This brings us to the performances themselves. Not enough can be said for Rourke’s flawless performances as Robinson. He is a revelation, and his performance is a complete affirmation of the art form of acting.

The parallels between Rourke’s own turbulent life and career and Robinson’s are obvious, but his performance couldn’t be further from mere self-parody.  It is apparent throughout the entire film – with every facial expression that he exudes from his scarred and beaten-down countenance, with every line of dialogue he utters – that Rourke poured his heart and soul into this role.

Ultimately, what this amounts to is undoubtedly one of the greatest screen performances in film history. The one and only problem with Rourke’s performance is that it is in fact too good, threatening to overshadow all the other masterful parts of the film.

With such a performance from Rourke, one might be tempted to overlook the other two key players in the film, and this would be a grave mistake. Marisa Tomei, as the stripper who Robinson frequently visits, gives a memorable turn as well. Already an established, award-winning actress, Tomei turns in the finest performance of her career, holding her own opposite Rourke. The chemistry between the two performers is believable and honest, and the connection they share gives the film’s conclusion its punch.

Meanwhile, Wood portrays Robinson’s estranged daughter with all the intensity and rawness of a hurricane. One of the finest young actresses, she gives her character both the savage anger and underlying sadness necessary to make the character connect with the audience. The father-daughter relationship is the emotional core of the film, and Wood, at only 21years, handles her half of it like a seasoned professional.

All of this film’s success would be impossible without the help of screenwriter Robert Siegel, who provides one of the richest and most emotionally honest scripts in recent memory. It manages to be sentimental and heartbreaking without being sappy and melodramatic, a feat that seems increasingly difficult for dramatic filmmakers to accomplish these days. This is a film that breaks your heart not through sensationalized romance or over-dramatized tragedy, but through the bleak realities of life and the decisions we make. It takes a uniquely skilled writer to realize this potential in a story, and Siegel provides in spades.

“The Wrestler” is the cinematic equivalent of a kick to the gut, due in no small part to its perfect ending. In fact, the final 10 minutes of the film deserve to go down as one of the best paced and crafted sequences in cinematic history.

Assisted by a director making a bold shift in style, one of the greatest screen performances of all time, and a fully realized purity of thematic vision, “The Wrestler” is the finest film released this year. This sobering, bleak look at choices and consequences resonates far beyond the theatre and lingers well after the final frame fades from the screen.