Talk about comebacks. After many years in the wilderness and being considered MIA professionally, Mickey Rourke, just like the washed-up character he plays, attempts a return to the big show in “The Wrestler.” Not only does he pull it off, but Rourke creates a galvanizing, humorous, deeply moving portrait that instantly takes its place among the great, iconic screen performances. An elemental story simply and brilliantly told, Darren Aronofsky’s fourth feature is a winner from every possible angle, although it will require deft handling by a smart distributor to overcome public preconceptions about Rourke, the subject matter and the nature of the film.
Co-produced by Wild Bunch in France, where Rourke has retained his most loyal following through thick and thin, this is nonetheless an American picture through and through, beginning with the way it strongly evokes the gritty working-class atmosphere of numerous ’70s dramas. Spare but vital, and with the increasingly arty mannerisms of Aronofsky’s previous work completely stripped away, the film has the clarity and simplicity of a great Hemingway short story — there’s nothing extraneous, the characters must face up to their limited options in life, and the dialogue in Robert Siegel’s superior script is inflected with the poetry of the everyday.
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All the same, for the first few minutes one could be excused for imagining the film was directed by Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, as ace lenser Maryse Alberti’s camera relentlessly follows around aging wrestler Randy “the Ram” Robinson (Rourke) from the back, concentrating on his long, dyed-blond hair and hulking body before fully revealing his mottled, puffy face. This guy is 20 years past his prime, but he’s still in pretty good shape and aims to get back on top on the pro wrestling circuit.
Ram seems to have always been a big fan favorite — he is one of their own, a fearless bruiser the white working stiffs can root for against the assorted freaks, ethnic interlopers and outright villains in this macho cartoon universe. A beguiling early scene that firmly sets the movie on its tracks shows an event’s muscled participants, all warmly easygoing and chummy with one another, pairing up and discussing what moves they’ll make in their matches. A similar later scene has one of the wrestlers offering Ram his choices from a laundry list of dubious-sounding pharmaceuticals.
Apart from the momentary camaraderie of his ringmates, however, Ram is alone in life. At the outset, he’s also penniless, locked out of his dismal trailer home until he can pay up. He works occasionally, lugging cartons at a big-box store, and his tough-guy posture is adored by small kids, but he’s got no friends and nothing to show for his strenuous efforts.
From time to time, he has a drink at a gentlemen’s club, where he visits aging stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), whose days of using her body for her livelihood are similarly numbered. After getting a load of some of Ram’s battle scars, Cassidy, whose real name is Pam, tells him he ought to see “The Passion of the Christ.” “They threw everything at him,” she says, to which Ram guesses Jesus must have been a “tough dude.” Ram must confront his mortality after the film’s second wrestling match, a bout so gruesome and barbarous it will force some people to look away.
Assessing his options while recovering, Ram decides to gently step up his relationship with Pam, as well as to try to reconnect with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he hasn’t seen in years. Both women have good reasons not to allow such a damaged man into their intimate lives, but even their most tentative signals of openness give Ram reason to hope for a new chapter in his life. His encounters with them are sensitively written and acted with impressive insight and delicacy, and Ram has one monologue in which he lays his feelings bare to Stephanie at a deserted old Jersey boardwalk — “I deserve to be alone,” he admits — that is so great, one wishes it were longer.
After a stint at a deli counter that is the source of more good character humor, Ram decides to unretire and fight in a 20th-anniversary rematch of one of his most legendary bouts, “Ram vs. Ayatollah.” Despite the hoopla, the way it all plays out is as far from “Rocky Balboa” as one could get, resulting in a climax that is exhilarating, funny and moving.
Shot in rough-and-ready handheld style, pic atmospherically reeks of low-rent lodgings, clubs, American Legion halls, shops and makeshift dressing rooms on the Eastern seaboard in winter (it locationed in New Jersey and Philadelphia). Stylistically, it’s agile, alert and most interested in what’s going on in the characters’ faces.
And that is a lot. Physically imposing at 57, with a face that bespeaks untold battering and alteration, Rourke is simply staggering as Ram. The camera is rarely off him, and one doesn’t want it to be, so entirely does he express the full life of this man with his every word and gesture. Ram’s life has been dominated by pain in all its forms, but he’s also devoted it to the one thing he loves and excels at, so he asks for no sympathy; he may have regrets, but no complaints.
As vibrant — and as naked — as she was in last year’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” Tomei is in top, emotionally forthright form as she charts a life passage similar to Ram’s, if much less extreme. Once her character stops stonewalling her father and hears him out, Wood provides a fine foil for Rourke in their turbulent scenes together. The many supporting thesps, especially the wrestling world habitues, are richly amusing and salt-of-the-earth.