There's an extra thrill that comes from loving a movie you thought you were going to hate. Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) is a director whose intellectual reach tends to exceed his artistic grasp. Though the scope of his ambition may be admirable— The Fountain is about nothing less than Hugh Jackman's quest to transcend mortality—Aronofksy's films have always struck me as adolescent fantasies: self-consciously big ideas wrapped in lurid, overcomposed images. So the scruffy, almost accidental beauty of The Wrestler (Fox Searchlight) comes as even more of a surprise than the greatness of Mickey Rourke's performance. The idea that Rourke, an '80s sex symbol coming off 20 years of Bukowski-esque dissolution, had this in him makes a crazy sort of sense. That Aronofsky had it in him is a rebuke to the complacency of viewers who, like me, thought they had his number.
Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a washed-up pro wrestler who works a day job at a supermarket while continuing to ply his trade on weekends in VA halls along the Jersey shore. Though he's lonely, broke, and living in a trailer (that is, when the landlord doesn't lock him out for unpaid rent), the Ram seems to be getting by OK. He trades banter, illegal substances, and ass-whomping tips with his fellow wrestlers (all played marvelously by nonactors from the real-life circuit) and visits his favorite stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) for chatty lap dances. Then, after a particularly grueling match with the staple-gun-wielding "Necro Butcher" (Dylan Summers), the Ram has a heart attack. Waking up in the hospital, he's told he should never wrestle again. But a certain "Ayatollah" is looking to re-create a legendary 20-year-old match with the Ram, and the flyers are already printed …
Though Randy can't bring himself to stop doing the only thing he's ever been a winner at, he does make some changes in his life: He tries to connect with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who, after years of neglect, regards him with a distrust bordering on hatred. He also tentatively pushes for a real relationship with Cassidy, but her resistance to the idea of dating a strip-club customer proves tougher than Necro Butcher's stapler.
Randy's relationships with these two women are what set The Wrestler (sparely scripted by Robert Siegel) apart from your standard sports-comeback drama. Wood has definitively made the jump from interesting child star to accomplished adult actress. Though hers is the most underwritten of the three main characters, she shines in her few scenes as the wounded, rageful daughter. And amid all the (granted well-earned) fuss about Rourke's comeback, I hope Marisa Tomei won't be overlooked for what I consider the single best female performance of the year, supporting or otherwise. She's smart, earthy, and astonishingly real in a role that could have foundered in cheap sentimentality. And if we're going to marvel at Rourke's sculpted (and no doubt hormonally augmented) 56-year-old form, how about Tomei's 44-year-old body pole-dancing in a G-string?
I can't think of any movie since North Dallas Forty that looks so unflinchingly at the masochism of professional sports. The Ram's brand of wrestling is frankly fake, but no less lethal for that. His body, pumped up by steroids and parched by years of hard living, is a barely functioning wreck aptly assessed by its owner as "an old broken-down piece of meat." The movie also exposes some wrestling tricks, like the razor blade that Randy hides in his wristband to furtively self-inflict wounds during a match. Though the wrestling scenes have a no-holds-barred intensity—Randy and his opponents come at each other with everything from barbed wire to a fan's prosthetic leg—they don't feel voyeuristic or condescending. Leaping from the top rope in lime-green tights may be medically unadvisable and existentially absurd, but it's what the Ram does. It's his art.
After a second viewing, I'm hard-pressed to find a moment in this strangely delicate movie that doesn't play true. Maryse Alberti's handheld camera takes us exactly where we need to be (usually following Rourke around) without drawing attention to its own mobility. The well-placed music—a Guns N' Roses song here, a Springsteen ballad there—feels indigenous to the New Jersey working-class locale. And Rourke holds the whole thing together with a rich, dense performance devoid of vanity or shtick. The Ram is sometimes—often, even—a manipulative, self-pitying man, but Rourke and Aronofskypaint his portrait with a rigorous dignity.