“And by his wounds we were healed!”

. - Pam (Marisa Tomei), quoting The Passion of the Christ, not Isaiah 53:5.

Darren Aronofsky is a director who doesn’t seem to worry about money matters. The budget for his last film, The Fountain (2006), dried-up when Brad Pitt decided to take an early shower. Hugh Jackman (sans Adamantium claws) is not, it seems, felt to be as much of a box-office magnet as Mr. Pitt. Consequently, the film had to be re-worked and made cheaply on, reputedly, half the original $70 million budget. Yes, $35 million is a cheap movie by Hollywood studio standards!

Aronofsky feels that this, ultimately, was to the films betterment (see the interview in Sight and Sound, Feb 2009) so, following this less-is-more principal, he approached his next project with a deliberate intent to spend considerably less. The budget for The Wrestler was reputedly $6 million.

Consequently, the aesthetic of The Wrestler is that of the cinema verité documentary, all hand-held-cameras and available-light in existing locations rather than beautifully-lit custom-built sets. The set-piece scenes seem thrown hap-hazardly together as though the film were being assembled on the fly. Clearly a lot of thought went in to making it all look so spontaneous.

We spend an inordinate amount of time behind Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke, on career-best form) as he stomps, huffing and puffing down poorly lit corridors. We see his grimy, cluttered world over his shoulder and are given ample time to note, in graphic, greasy detail, his straggly suicide-blonde tangle of hair. When he does talk, his expressions range from pained to confused to just plain depressed and he genuinely seems to have no idea what he’s going to say next, which is, let’s face it, the defining characteristic of anyone not reading from a script. In fact, the only thing that this film lacks to make it a real documentary bio-pic is Nick Bloomfield deliberately getting himself in shot as much as possible.

No, unlike Mr Bloomfield’s projects, both Aronofsky and Rourke demonstrate an almost painful lack of vanity in this project. In Rourke’s case, he seems determined to publicly immolate himself on the barbs of his youthful foolishness, as though genuinely humbled by the facial surgery he has undergone to reputedly correct damage that was done to him in the early nineties, when he effectively threw-away his A-List Hollywood-Movie-Star career to become a boxer. He seems to be aware of how monstrous he must seem – especially to his former colleagues in Hollywood, the capitol city of hollow outer beauty.

When Ram tells his daughter “I'm an old broken down piece of meat and I deserve to be all alone. I just don’t want you to hate me”, tears roll down his rough red-raw cheeks and you feel as though it is Rourke himself speaking to us, the viewers, from the heart. Similarly, looking back at his career, it is easy to hear Ram’s mantra “I hated the fucking nineties” as Rourke’s own! He has reached a point of self-analysis that only those who have aged to out-live their youthful beauty ever need address. When young and desired, he played cruel, careless characters but now, as an older, seemingly humbler man, he tries to imbue his monstrous creations with an inner humanity to contrast the outer dereliction. This role could be seen as Rourke’s shot at creating Hunchback of Notre Dame-type pathos. Well I, for one, fell for it.

Even though this classic come-back tale is almost painfully clichéd in its faithful adherence to the path laid down by Sylvester Stallone (who must have trodden these boards four [or is it five?] times before), you look beyond this to the heart of the movie. Because, by casting Rourke, Aronofsky has elevated these familiar tropes to the level of scarifying confessional and the lengths to which both the actor and the character push themselves, to simply be allowed to entertain us in the only way they know how, are genuinely moving.

Rourke is an actor who has been earnestly trying to earn a place back on the top table for some years now beginning, I feel, with his small but mould-breaking turn as the sympathetic cross-dresser, Jan, in Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory (2000). He followed this with the eerie drug-pusher, The Cook, in Spun (2002) and, eventually, his powerhouse performance as Marv in Sin City (2005), a character Rourke maybe identified with more than we suspected at the time. In Frank Miller’s original comic, Marv describes himself as “The monster in the mirror” and confesses to Wendy “I wasn’t never even able to buy a woman, the way I look”. Neither of these comments is designed to illicit sympathy as Marv, like Ram, believes he deserves his fate.

Then we come to the careworn flower of Cassidy, as played by Marisa Tomei. The Oscar Academy mystified the world in 1992 by awarding Tomei the Oscar for Best Actress for a frankly indifferent performance in an, in all honesty, indifferent movie: My Cousin Vinny. Of course, she was the only American in the running that year, but far be it from me to suggest that this had any bearing on her unfathomable win. Anyway, sixteen years and a respectable if unspectacular body of work later, her career (which, let us not forget, started in 1984 with The Toxic Avenger) has come a long way; culminating in her starring alongside a deserving-Oscar-winner like Philip Seymour Hoffman and taking her clothes off for legendary director Sidney Lumet. This willingness to shed her clothing (if the role demands it, obviously) seems to have brought her to Aronofsky’s attention.

He needed a woman to play the pole-dancer Cassidy in a way that could mirror Randy’s dilemma. She, like him, takes her clothes off to entertain others. She, like him, performs under a pseudonym … which leads to a further, albeit tenuous, connection: her real name is Pam, while his stage name is Ram. Their key connection is that they have both seen better days. The crucial difference between them is that she has a child and this motivates her to get out while she still can, before she gets drawn inescapably deeper into the sex industry. Randy has already reached the bottom before he is forced to get out and, by then, it is too late for him.

What Tomei brings to the role is a strength. She has clearly dealt with disappointments in her life and, of late, has had to confront the greatest challenge any Hollywood actress can ever face … turning forty. She understands Pam inside and out, she understands how hard one has to work to appear younger than one is, and how soul-destroying that effort can be. She projects an air of warmth-in-the-face-of-adversity and brings a level of believable naturalism to the role which perfectly complements that of Rourke. She, like he, is perfectly cast. These are roles which have been waiting for these performers to reach the point in their lives when they were ready for them, which helps you see through the clichéd nature of their roles because, after all, clichés are clichés for a reason … mostly because they are recognisable as truth!

Hang about, you may be thinking, a wrestling movie with a burnt-out old fighter and (almost) a hooker with the heart of gold ... this rings a bell!! Indeed it does. Back in 1991 The Brothers Coen had studio head Jack Lipnick telling their titular hero Barton Fink all about the ingredients of the perfect wrestling movie. Start with an out-of-date movie star known for boxing rather than wrestling (in their case, Wallace Beery) then: “ … I wanna know his hopes, his dreams. Naturally, he'll have to get mixed up with a bad element. And a romantic interest. You know the drill. Romantic interest, or else a young kid. An orphan.” (Barton Fink, by Joel and Ethan Coen, script published by Faber and Faber) Where, in The Wrestler, you may be wondering, is the orphan?

Cue Adam. He’s not really an orphan; he’s just the kid who lives in the next trailer along in the trailer-park that Ram calls home (when he can pay his rent and actually get into the place, that is). During one delightfully pathetic scene, Ram invites Adam in to play on his twenty-year-old Nintendo 64, because the high-point in his career was his fight with ‘The Ayatollah’, which made both combatants famous enough to have a game developed for them.

Moments like this shine through as gems in this grimy, rough tale. Whilst it seems underplayed and seemingly lacking narrative drive it wanders, like Randy, through a derelict, dirty, downtrodden world, looking for a ray of sunshine to knife through the lifeless slate-grey skies. Inevitably, the tempting glimpse of a ‘re-match’ seems to be that light but, on its way down this tried-and-trusted narrative track, the film takes some memorable detours. There’s the scene where Ram sits in a signing session and looks around at the other wrestling legends in the hall, with their grey hair, walking sticks and wheel-chairs, and clearly thinks about his own future; or the sweet sequence where he takes Cassidy to a bar and dances for her a change; whilst my personal favourite is the easy-to-miss moment when Ram is walking down another of those long, winding corridors, wearing a white-coat and a hair-net, ready to face the ignominy of working on a deli counter just to make ends meat (!) … While in his head he can hear the crowd chanting for him, waiting for him to emerge into a very different arena.

All of which brings us to the fight scenes themselves. We see these being loosely rehearsed in the locker-rooms back-stage by men who know full-well they are there to entertain a crowd by seeming to hurt each other without actually doing so. These scenes are made all the more convincing by the simple expedient of having the wrestlers played by real wrestlers, who also presumably worked as technical advisors on the film, to ensure its obvious accuracy.

These scenes are clearly hard work for Rourke (who is now well into his fifties, let us not forget) but then that just adds to our empathy with the suffering of Ram. But the film isn’t about the fighting, it’s about the fighters; which is why – in a real deviation form the Rocky Balboa path - The Wrestler doesn’t save it’s big fight till the finale but instead plonks it at the end of the first act. This is what I believe is referred-to as ‘a Hardcore Deathmatch’, where the combatants hit each-other with furniture and various house-hold implements, most of which are wrapped in barbed–wire. There is also, most disturbingly, an industrial stapler with which they punch repeated holes in each-other’s skin.

This sequence is quite shockingly brutal. There is considerable bloodletting, reminding us of the visual and metaphorical similarity between fighters and raw-meat. What we have is the reality of the WWE-type pantomime we happily let our kids watch on TV. This is the brutality that exists one-step away from the TV cameras. These are the gladiators who are, quite literally, being sacrificed for our entertainment.

This Deathmatch sequence is genuinely hard to watch, in the way that Jennifer Connolly’s degradation at the end of Aronofsky’s own Requiem For a Dream (2000) also made you want to look away whilst, of course, leaving you entirely unable to do so. I think the fight here is all the harder to watch because Ram seems so unprepared for it. He goes into the ring willingly because, by his very nature, he won’t back down, but he has no idea quite what he is letting himself in for. Neither did I.

I wonder, when he signed on the line, if Mickey Rourke knew quite what he was letting himself in for. Simply another step along the comeback trail? Another chance to beat himself up on film (metaphorically, at least, since other wrestlers were hired to do that literally)? Did he, quietly, in his heart, think this was his big shot at an Oscar? Well, we shall see if it is. But, what is undeniable, is that his stock is now definitely in the ascendant and he’ll be able to name his own price from now on. If nothing else, The Wrestler has offered Mickey Rourke the chance to successfully demonstrate to a cynical world that he really is the fighter he has always believed himself to be.
If he never made another film, this would be as appropriate, elegant and elegiac an achievement as any actor could wish for. Whether he wins or loses on Oscar night, you have to admire him for having the strength and determination to get back in the ring.

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky.
Written by: Robert Siegel.
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood and John D’Leo.
Cert: 15
Dur: 109 mins

Image © Optimum Releasing in the UK.

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