To anybody interested in seeing Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, I offer this advice: try your damnedest to avoid the theatrical trailer. Either that, or see the trailer instead of seeing the movie—it’s not so much a preview of what the movie entails as it is a complete summary of it, complete with the perfectly-matched Springsteen song (which isn’t even actually in the film itself until the end credits). I might get more annoyed than most when a trailer not only tells too much about a movie but also gives away its most dramatic moments and plot points up front, but I found this to be an extreme example. It’s quite a testament, then, to the quality of the filmmaking, and primarily Aronofsky’s skills as a director, that I was still able to enjoy this movie despite the over-reaching trailer.
In my review of Slumdog Millionaire, I talked about Danny Boyle’s impressive ability to jump from genre to genre, his style adapting as needed to best convey each individual story in the most effective way possible. Here we see that Darren Aronofsky, while still developing as a director, certainly has the capacity to become that type of filmmaker as well: following the overly ambitious yet under-appreciated millennium-spanning tale of The Fountain with an intimate character portrait is nothing if not an exhibition of versatility. That he largely pulls it off is also a testament to not only his willingness to go in wildly different directions, but his ability to do so successfully.
The screenplay by Robert Siegel, the once long-time editor-in-chief of The Onion, is surprisingly heartfelt. Rather than a retrospective on the career of a big-name professional wrestler, the story instead is of the post-fame years of Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a former headliner who is well past his prime. We see every type of behind-the-scenes information you’d expect and want from a reality-based take on professional wrestling: pre-match planning sessions, dalliances with steroids, tricks with razor blades, and the pre-planned use of props (including one fairly disturbing example involving a staple gun).
The Ram is immediately and eminently likable, and we are treated to his touchingly personal interactions in many settings outside of the wrestling ring: the children who live in his low-income trailer park, the patrons of the grocery store where he works during the week to make ends meet, and of course other wrestlers ranging from his fellow has-beens to the hopeful up-and-comers grinding out their early-career experiences. Most notable, though, is his relationship with his favorite stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). This is more or less your typical “hooker with a heart of gold” character, but Tomei brings her unique charm (not to mention her incredibly sexy-as-ever body) to the role, fleshing it out to provide a powerful emotional basis for Rourke’s character. The counter-balance to Cassidy is The Ram’s estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), and in this relationship we see the script begin to falter: Wood is tragically under-used, though she does have one very powerful scene.
Aronofsky goes for a sort of half-documentary feel for this film, preferring to go with handheld cameras whenever possible. While he overuses the technique a bit too much, he also counterbalances it with some greatly cinematic depictions of the wrestling matches themselves, which show the heart-wrenching attempts at live-action grandeur still being made by men who are no longer in the spotlight but aren’t ready to admit to that just yet.
What this movie is about, though, is Mickey Rourke and his depiction of The Ram. It is a character study, and Rourke’s characterization is beyond impressive. He shows a man driven in the face of adversity, trying to overcome all that the world has thrown at him, and doing it with an almost endless amount of charm and good nature. There is a breakthrough moment that, like so many of the film’s high points, is spoiled by the trailer, but it still manages to play as emotionally and as truthfully as anything I’ve seen in the last year. There is a lot of joy to be derived from watching Rourke command the screen, particularly in the scenes he shares with Tomei. The film, disappointingly, doesn’t do as much with its characters as it could, preferring to present them more as static states-of-being rather than goal-oriented, living individuals who are striving for something. There are revelations to be had, however—exclusively by the main character—and they are satisfying in their unpredictability, if not always in their content. Aronofsky’s and Siegel’s quasi-verite approach, along with their wholly emotional attachment to their subject, makes it work—for the most part.