In the shadow of their press headlines movie stars can struggle to convince; it takes concentration to believe in Brad Pitt getting younger every day when you know how he celebrated his 43rd birthday.
The Wrestler is a film that takes this and uses it to full advantage. Mickey Rourke’s boxing background, his troubled personal life and disastrous career decisions bring an invaluable authenticity to his role as Randy ‘the Ram’ Robinson, a washed up professional wrestler with failing health, working the week-end promotion circuits.
It is unclear to us as the audience- maybe to the Ram himself- if wrestling became his family because he messed up his real-life one or if he messed up his family because of his devotion to wrestling. (Certainly the violence, training, celebrity and narcissism that go with it wouldn’t seem to encourage domestic bliss.)
Either way, it becomes the only constant he can rely on, the ring both his saviour from a hostile real world and the destroyer of his fragile body.
The film gives a fresh twist to the ‘one last fight’ formula by tracking his clumsy yet affecting attempts to claw back some emotional meaning to his life following a heart attack before the ultimate re-match that will end it all.
Darren Aronofsky’s gritty direction is key to the telling of this story. Borrowing from the honesty of his style in Requiem for a Dream his camera is never needy, documenting more than manipulating and seeking no approval from the audience.
What we observe is a flawed man with integrity negotiating the tough reality which has been largely of his own making- trying, effectively, to reap more than he has sown. A man so wedded to his profession he is out of place anywhere outside it- his overbuilt body, tan and blonde high-lighted mane the physical expression of this.
The improvised scenes in the deli, in which Randy awkwardly presides over the meat counter, encapsulate the heart of the film as much as those in the ring where, bouffant hair stuffed into counter-staff plastic hat, the more he tries to ‘do normal’ the more he feels like an outsider.
The scene where he bleeds on the ham slicer and rages angrily out of the store is the zenith of his predicament and it is testament to both the intimacy of Aronofsky’s direction and Rourke’s performance that, however alarming a figure the Ram cuts, our empathy is with him. We understand his actions because we know his history, which makes one ponder how many strangers’ transgressions we would forgive if we knew theirs.
But this is not a depressing film. There is warmth and humour throughout- from the camaraderie of the locker room to stripper Cassidy’s ‘tart with a heart’ and daughter Stephanie’s thwarted affection. Not forgetting the genius comic cameo creation of the weird wrestling fan chick with the fireman fetish and pet ferret.
Rourke’s plastic surgery mask acts like a billboard to the rough ride of his life, lending a touching pathos to his performance. A fighter’s stoicism and give-a-shit attitude, meanwhile, ensure that ‘the Ram’ never plays as victim. He inhabits the role without apology, in the way that only a man who has experienced pride before a fall first-hand could.
Marisa Tomei, meanwhile, plays a woman whose split public (Cassidy) and private (Pam) personae make her a sympathetic love-interest for the Ram. She plays the role with an appealing softness and while her body is fantastic she has a face just the wrong side of beautiful to be believable.
The Wrestler is a successful film because, in common with much good art, it tells the unique story of an individual while illuminating the truths of every man.
It does not shy away from identifying that our capacity to make mistakes can outweigh our capacity to forgive but that the boundaries we set ourselves are sometimes as harmful as those we fail to set.
Above all, it is a human film about loneliness and belonging and our fundamental need to be loved- by a father, a daughter, a lover, a fan.