The Wrestler

Rourke rewards Aronofsky's casting gamble

Fox Searchlight

Release date: Dec. 31

Everybody knows wrestling is fake, but those are real professionals throwing Mickey Rourke around the ring and real staples piercing skin in one particularly grisly fight.

Thrust into the Oscar spotlight after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Fest, “The Wrestler” features one of those exceptional, born-to-play roles by Rourke, relying just as heavily on the former heartthrob’s background in boxing as it does on the off-screen mileage he has endured en route to this comeback.

The ring has been a fitting metaphor for the American Dream over the years, though our collective ideals have changed since such boxing classics as “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” ran the Oscar race. With its mix of talent and artifice, wrestling reflects that cultural shift from pure pugilism to more theatrical standards of success, where the fight is rigged and the match itself is judged as performance.

As Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Rourke owns every scene in the film, training intensely to master the choreography of wrestling but also capable of baring his soul in private moments. For Randy, wrestling represents an escape from blue-collar anonymity. He’s estranged from his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, in a heartbreaking turn) and clumsy in his romantic advances toward a stripper with dreams of her own. As the exotic dancer, Oscar winner Marisa Tomei has physical and emotional demands that rival Rourke’s.

There’s both dignity and tragedy in Randy’s situation — not the combination of ingredients one might expect from screenwriter (and former Onion editor) Robert Siegel. Director Darren Aronofsky also surprises, rejecting the rigorously storyboarded approach of “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain” for a naturalistic style, one that called for shooting at real matches with genuine wrestlers.

The result is a portrait powerful enough to warrant nominations in all those categories.

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