The Wrestler reviewed.

Reviews of the latest films.
Dec. 17 2008 11:56 AM

Unexpected Body Slam

The Wrestler is terrific.

Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler"
The Wrestler

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.

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 23 2014 12:43 PM Occupy Wall Street How can Hillary Clinton be both a limousine liberal and a Saul Alinsky radical?
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Head of Security Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 2:31 PM 3 Simpsons Showrunners Reflect on New Fans and the “Classic Era” Myth
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 1:50 PM Oh, the Futility! Frogs Try to Catch Worms off of an iPhone Video.
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 1:38 PM Why Is Fall Red in America but Yellow in Europe? A possible explanation, 35 million years in the making.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.