Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Wrestler / **** (R)

Randy “The Ram” Robinson: Mickey Rourke
Cassidy: Marisa Tomei
Stephanie Robinson: Evan Rachel Wood

Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a film directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Robert D. Siegel. Running time: 111 min. Rated R (for violence, sexuality/nudity, language, and some drug use).

Have you ever seen a one trick pony
In the field so happy and free?
If you’ve ever seen a one trick pony,
Then you’ve seen me.

—Bruce Springsteen, “The Wrestler”

Many wiser men than myself have made claims about the certainty of death and taxes. I’ll leave the evidence of the later to the political pundits. The former, however, while true, leaves much more to be considered than it suggests. Death might be the end, but the journey to it for most of us is hard and filled with revelations and truths we’d rather not face. “The Wrestler” captures the reality of growing old on that long journey better than any picture of recent memory.

Mickey Rourke (“Sin City”) plays the titular wrestler in a performance that is as much career exposing as it is career defining. He is Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler who had his grand moment in the spotlight some 20 years ago and is still plugging away at it despite the fact that the glory seems to be gone. His body is falling apart and his personal life is empty after a lifetime of neglecting those he should have held closest.

Director Darren Aronofsky (“The Fountain”) runs the opening credits over a collage of clippings from The Ram’s early successes. He never turns the cameras back on those glory days. Instead we meet the aging Ram wrestling in a run down American Legion hall. There isn’t much glory to be found here.

We see the routines of the wrestlers. As a sport, it is common knowledge that professional wrestling is a “staged” event. Aronofsky grants us a revealing backstage pass into their world. An event organizer announces the order of the bouts. All the athletes already seem to know who will win which match, but they talk briefly with one another to form a vague outline of how the match will go. Little is said about choreography, so much of what is done in the ring is improvised. It is obvious a great deal of athleticism is necessary for these “stage fights.”

Outside of the ring The Ram’s life is one of poverty, teetering on homelessness. He visits a strip club on a regular basis. He’s not there for the show so much as for the company of one stripper in particular. Cassidy is getting older herself, considering her profession, although she’s kept her looks better than The Ram. She insists on referring to him as a client as a defense against any emotional connection, but it is obvious that connection has already been made between them.

Rourke and Marisa Tomei (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”) provide the most raw work of their careers here as the aging wrestler and stripper. They’ve each come to the end of their passions in life and they realize they need new paths if they’re to survive. The Ram is naked before Cassidy emotionally, and although she holds up her client/service façade between them, she sees a similar soul and wants to reach out and grab him.

Eventually Cassidy allows Randy in—however briefly—and encourages him to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Stephanie. Stephanie is not welcoming to a father who was never there during her childhood. Evan Rachel Wood (“Across the Universe”) plays Stephanie with the strong-willed dignity of a young adult who has had to create herself without the guidance of elders. Although she doesn’t want to give her father a chance, her self-respect forces her to be reasonable with him in his newfound effort.

Rourke’s and Wood’s scenes together are the most emotionally compelling of a film filled with heartache and joy. The rainy afternoon the two of them spend on Coney Island had a profound effect on me. I felt such joy for these characters as they discovered each other after years of needing each other. Like their characters, I wanted those moments to last forever. I don’t know how Aronofsky achieved this emotional effect, but their joy was undeniable to me.

But people don’t change so easily and The Ram’s emotions have been driven by anger for much of his life. When we try to climb higher, there is always the possibility a fall will come, and so it does for this hero. As with most of us, when adversity comes, The Ram returns to the patterns and comforts with which he is most familiar.

Aronofsky’s previous films “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain” have explored their character’s emotions with an observation that is keen and detailed. But those films have also required a bit of cinematic spectacle to achieve their emotional summits. Here Aronofsky is much more secure in his faith in the words and dialogue of the screenplay by Robert D. Siegel (“The Onion Movie”). It contains his most straightforward direction and packs a greater punch for it. The Ram may be a one trick pony, but “The Wrestler” proves that Darren Aronofsky is not.

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