Most people typically feel one of three ways about professional wrestling: that it’s either ridiculous, awesome, or both. There are few folks left (one would hope) who don’t recognize it, at least to some degree, for the grand macho charade it is, but that doesn’t spoil the allure for millions of fans, and doesn’t justify offhand dismissals of simple fakery. Whether or not these large, scowling men are throwing each other around in earnest doesn’t change the fact that they’re throwing each other around.
What does the artificiality do besides enhance these testosterone soap operas? What’s the difference between an arena full of bloodthirsty wrestling fans and a theater packed for Sweeney Todd, besides the hollering and the folding chairs?
After all, the fact that the beatdowns aren’t real doesn’t leave The Wrestler’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) any less beaten down. Twenty years past his pro wrestling prime, the Ram (as he still prefers to be called) stocks groceries by day and sleeps in a trailer by night. But the weekends are his, spent touring the amateur wrestling circuit and playing to nostalgic fans. The audience size varies (we observe that the bloody, overtly theatrical matches are better attended) but the Ram doesn’t seem to mind so long as they’re cheering him. Taking the stage to the strains of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and running through a loosely plotted brawl, the roar of the crowd sustains him, even as he destroys his body with steroids, stagecraft mutilation, and stress.
There are two women in his life, both beyond his reach. Stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, bold in both her fatalistic vulnerability and copious nudity) is a sympathetic ear, a confidant, but she struggles to remind the Ram that their relationship is strictly business. She offers him advice and affection, but sees herself too clearly in this man who has spent a life trading his body for attention. Meanwhile, health problems drive the Ram to reconnect with his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), estranged for many years, with good reason, and hesitant to allow him back into her life. Still hurting himself professionally after three decades, she is skeptical that he’s yet learned how not to hurt those around him.
If this seems sad, it’s because The Wrestler is a sad movie. But not arbitrarily so—there is a richness to Darren Aronofsky’s character study that takes it beyond the typical sports-twilight melodrama. Quite a lot of this has to do with Rourke, whose performance alone has boosted the film’s profile. Though his makeup-buried turn as Marv in 2005’s Sin City was a certified show-stealer, The Wrestler turns Rourke himself into the show. His weathered face and battered body tell the tale of a lifetime of physical pain, but it’s just as much about his eyes and the way he carries himself. We see a defeated man aching uncontrollably for the restoration of past glory, and the immersion is so complete that we need not draw parallels with Rourke’s own circumstances. Onscreen there is only the Ram.
Perhaps more surprising, though, is Aronofsky’s own work here. Best known for the bleak, indulgent super-stylishness of Pi and Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler signals a newfound discipline and maturity to complement his undeniable skill. Gone is the kinetic editing, and much of the showiness; aside from a tracking shot motif and a wrestling match woven smartly into its own aftermath, the film’s style is strikingly subdued and naturalistic, following the Ram around like an intimate documentary. Like David Fincher’s Zodiac or Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, The Wrestler is the work of a filmmaker who has finally chosen to captivate rather than just impress.
And captivate he does. Free from Requiem’s aggressive nihilism or the ponderousness of his underrated The Fountain, Aronofsky’s portrait of the Ram (scripted by former Onion editor Robert Siegel) is both heartfelt and heartbreaking, yet decidedly unsentimental. We can empathize even when we disapprove, and there isn’t a moment that doesn’t feel true. Darren Aronofsky has made his first great film, and it is one of the year’s best.