Dir: Darren Aronofsky
“I’m an old broken down piece of meat.” Surprisingly, that's not a quote from an interview with time and plastic surgery ravaged Mickey Rourke, but from his character Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, the eponymous Wrestler in Darren Aronofsky’s latest film. The film follows The Ram 20 years after his heyday. He’s deaf, fighting in tiny, extreme matches. His only friend is his favourite stripper (Marisa Tomei). His daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) doesn’t want to know him and he’s suffered a heart attack mere weeks before a 20th anniversary rematch with his most famous opponent.
For the most part The Wrestler doesn’t just embrace cliché, it sees cliché coming, rushes toward it and gives it a great big kiss. It does, commendably, do a few unexpected things (or, rather, not do several things you expect it to) in its final scenes, but until we get there it’s familiar almost beat for beat. The reason that this tremendous familiarity doesn’t sink the movie is that the actors simply won’t allow it.
Mickey Rourke was due to be the next James Dean, or the next Brando. He was impossibly handsome, had an instinct for good scripts and turned in an array of memorable and unforced performances in films as varied as Diner, Body Heat and Angel Heart, and then it all went wrong. Rourke returned to boxing and a combination of spending years getting hit in the face and plastic surgery reduced the former pinup to what we see in The Wrestler, which resembles Paul McCrane’s character in Robocop after he’s been doused in toxic waste more than it does Mickey Rourke. His voice has changed too; sounding like Rourke has spent the last decade on a diet of cigarettes, sandpaper and granite, and yet all this makes him perfect to play The Ram. Even before Rourke opens his mouth we have a sense of him as a broken down former legend. His performance is a subtle thing, which works beautifully in showing the way The Ram comes to life in front of an audience, be it in the ring or (in the film’s best scene) serving customers at a supermarket deli counter.
Rourke’s best moments are shared with his co-stars, his sad but sweet wooing of Tomei's Cassidey, the aging stripper he’s become friendly with as her only remaining regular for private dances, and his desperate attempt to mend his relationship with his teenage daughter. He’s completely invisible in the character in these scenes, and Tomei and Wood match him. Both the film’s major female characters are terribly underwritten and, particularly in Wood’s case, underutilised, but they both make the most of their screen time. Tomei finds humanity in what should be a cliché and exploitative part (though the exploitative element is very much there in the frequent and extensive nudity), making Cassidey, or Pam, refreshingly real and complex in just a few short exchanges. Evan Rachel Wood has even less time, and an even more stock character, but even with the ludicrously exaggerated speed of character arc you can’t fault her for a second. Her final scene is out and out painful to watch, both because you care for The Ram and because you empathise with her.
What, sadly, doesn’t work as well as the acting is the technical side of the film. Shaky-cam is becoming a disease in cinema, and Darren Aronofsky has come down with a bad case on this film. I don’t know when it became some sort of sin for a camera to make smooth moves when following a character, but the constant wobble in Aronofsky’s frames (even in many of his static shots) started to be irritating early on. Note to filmmakers… unless you do it very well, and for a purpose, shaky-cam doesn’t make your film feel ‘real’, it makes it feel amateurish. The Wrestler also falters somewhat at a screenplay level, because as well as many of the machinations of the plot a great deal of the dialogue feels second hand, however well delivered it is.
The one great thing about this film, besides the acting, is its ending. Most films these days are too long, driven by a desire to tie up every last loose end for an audience. The Wrestler ends exactly where it should, with a brilliant and moving shot, and by that one decision Darren Aronofsky and his film went up in my estimation. The Wrestler isn’t perfect, but its strengths are many, and enough to make it worth seeing.