Movie Review: 'The Wrestler': Down and Out on the Edge

Mickey Rourke plays a washed-up wrestler who tries to put his life together and make his big comeback.
By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 25, 2008

Imagining someone other than the beatifically battered Mickey Rourke in the title role of "The Wrestler" would be like picturing someone other than John Malkovich in "Being John Malkovich." As washed-up, onetime ring master Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Rourke -- a career-crash victim himself -- is "The Wrestler": He embodies the same tragedy of ego that afflicts his character. He holds the same mirror up to his culture.

In other words, as stunt casting goes, "The Wrestler" can't be beat -- unlike Randy, whose masochistic need to add the elusive second act to his life makes him a kind of societal piƱata-cum-throw pillow. Rourke drags Randy's steroid-inflated corpus from battle to battle with the painful perseverance of Liza Minnelli and the weariness of a stop-lossed Marine. His hearing aid and reading glasses are arrows through his heart. He's Mr. Entertainment, nailed to a cross.

"The Wrestler" is the fourth feature from Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream"), and an anomalous exercise in spartan aesthetics for a director normally identified with high flights of style. But given that excess is the movie's lifeblood -- the excesses of the ring, of substance abuse, of musculature, even of tattoos and the couture of wrestling -- the only thing Aronofsky could temper was his own visual fancy. So he bit the bullet, and the choice was good.

But is it worth the time and money? Perhaps not, if you're looking for a straightforward story that justifies its own existence. For those who appreciate the postmodern perversity of the construct, however, the film is a bounty of motivations, allusions and even cultural history. "The Wrestler" exists on a transgressive fringe of Americana, a realm occupied at one time or another by itinerant bluesmen, vaudeville comics, burlesque queens and frontier Hamlets, i.e. "theater people." The grapplers perform their pumped-up battles anywhere, from VFW posts to school auditoriums, with a kind of noble, if unknowing, regard for the venerable traditions of the stage. The match must go on. Randy and his fellow performers -- some on their way up, most on their way down -- behave collegially, working out moves and falls and the various assaults-to-come, as if the Christians were conspiring with the lions.

As in most subcultural arenas, ritual becomes codified: Randy's match-prep extends from sunbooth tanning to hair-dyeing to the careful concealment of a razor blade with which he'll cut his own forehead after a supposed headbashing against a ring post. He ritually beats his forearms, rather than his chest, which is where the real trouble erupts: Following what is probably the movie's most gruesome sequence -- involving broken glass, barbed wire and a staple gun -- Randy has a heart attack, and his long, slow denouement picks up reckless speed.

As good as Rourke is, and as willingly as he throws himself on the figurative hand grenade, his performance constantly raises the question of whether the story would be worth telling without him.

Marisa Tomei, as Cassidy the pole dancer, delivers a courageous performance, one nearly as ego-battering as Rourke's. That Randy would be looking for love in a strip bar is perhaps "The Wrestler's" most poetic aspect. Both Randy and Cassidy practice their own forms of public nudity; both exist in fairly shadowy worlds that thrive on youth; both are aging out. Randy's late-inning reunion with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is poignant and somehow inevitable, and a less rigid actress might have made more of it.

But in the broader sense, Randy is another in a long line of American screen characters -- be they gangsters, gunslingers, ballplayers or, in this case, fighters -- who are facing the inevitable, and can't ease their regrets. We feel for him. And we feel for us. Maybe that's enough.

The Wrestler (109 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row and AMC Loews Georgetown) is rated R for violence, vulgarity, drug use, nudity and sexuality.

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