Fake But Accurate
2008 // USA // Darren Aronofsky // November 23, 2008 // Theatrical Print
A - On the surface, The Wrestler is as dissimilar to Darren Aronofsky's prior films as one could imagine. Assembled with an unflashy aesthetic and a mood of agonizing immediacy, Aronofsky's camera hovers over the shoulder of waning (waned, really) professional wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson, absorbing the sad details of his life with a quietly pitying gaze. Can this really be the same film-maker that gave us the grainy paranoia of Pi, the diabolic carnival of Requieum for a Dream, or the ecstatic mourning of the underrated The Fountain? Never mind the stylistic chasm that lies between those films and The Wrestler. Aronofsky's pet themes are all present and accounted for: obsession, disintegration, and the sour mingling of bliss and misery, nostalgia and hope. Unquestionably, this is the director's most emotionally intricate work to date. It's hard to say whether this is in spite of, or due to, The Wrestler's near absence of Aronofsky's academic doodling, grandiose gestures, or relentless cinematic punctuation (which, I should add, aren't unpleasant features in and of themselves). What is undeniable is that The Wrestler's sorrowful heft rests on the director's emergent sensitivity and particularly on a breathtaking performance from Mickey Rourke, for whom the phrase "perfectly cast" seems an understatement. It may be the performance of the year, and given that this year also gave us stunning turns from Juliette Binoche, Anamaria Marinca, Heath Ledger, and Sally Hawkins, that's saying something.
One might be able to envision an alternate The Wrestler functioning fine enough without Rourke, but it's plain that the film wouldn't boast such sustained, gritty pathos, nor would it attain the same emotional zeniths. Rourke just doesn't carry his personal baggage onto screen, he builds a mountain out of it and then hurls himself from the summit. Dwelling on the crooked path of the man's career and the nature of his personal tribulations might make for flavorful speculation, but permit me to dwell instead on the way that he delivers something wondrous within The Wrestler's modest attire. I could talk for ages just about his face, a countenance that suggests someone drug the guy face-down along a quarter-mile gravel driveway. However, it's not the fact of that mug of pockmarked putty that is so marvelous, but what Rourke does with it. He grimaces, squints, grins, sets his jaw, and blinks furiously. He purses his lips continually, when pondering, reminiscing, or sealing in his annoyance. Nowhere do these gestures betray the traces of a performance. It's a portrayal that smolders, one so close to the bone that it almost hurts to watch, despite the titters and wan smiles Rourke leavens it with from time to time.
Worn sports film tropes abound in The Wrestler, and Aronofsky's tracings of them at times seem unaccountably limp, even weary. Randy's life reads like a checklist for every Washed-Up Athlete / Artist character: an estranged daughter (Rachel Evan Wood, brittle and gothified), a stripper maybe-girlfriend with a heart of gold (Marissa Tomei, who just gets more stunning and engrossing with age), and a demeaning daytime job with a nasty little twerp of a manager. Throw in drug addiction, a medical crisis, and a Big Match / Performance that could make or break what remains of our protagonist's career, and you have the makings of made-for-television banality. Yet The Wrestler turns around and triumphs in spite of its familiar outlines, held aloft by Rourke, Tomei, and Aronofsky's determination to allow his first-order themes to flake and peel.
Consider a scene where the stripper Pam asks Randy if he has seen The Passion of the Christ, and then compares the puffy wrestler to the Messiah, in appearance, endurance, and facility for taking a beating. The comparison doesn't really stand up to scrutiny—Whose sins is Randy suffering for in his grueling, midnight union hall bouts but his own?—but it's a fascinating moment. It's not just that Aronofsky senses both the embarrassing bluntness of the metaphor and its awkward application. There's something sweet, sad, and ill-fitting in Randy and Pam's manner, as if they both know the metaphor doesn't quite work. This willingness to pull back a bit and lend a touch of aching awareness to its characters is endemic to the film, and it points to Aronofsky's fascination with the thwarting of ambition and longings. Consequently, The Wrestler exhibits a startling, secondary melancholy that runs deeper than the viewer might expect given its maudlin story elements.
History haunts The Wrestler, so much sweeter and brighter than the rotten present. However, the bad luck and colossal cock-ups of the past also serve as walls boxing in the film's characters. For Randy and Pam, Faulker's aphorism is appropriate: "The past isn't dead. It's not even past." Aronofsky's preference for ambiguity in history's calamities—ailments, vanished money, the hollow space where an ex should be—might have been frustrating in another film. Here it bows to The Wrestler's disciplined realism, coaxing both nuance and ferocity from the performers. In contrast to its cruel lingering on the the gruesome consequences of an "extreme" wrestling match, the film rarely fleshes out Randy or Pam's back stories. A good thing too, as such gestures would prove both awkward and unnecessary. The film discovers its history via Rourke's tears and rueful smiles, or the way Tomei's breath catches and her eyes crinkle. This is a film that has grown on me, gradually awakening me to its gentle brilliance. More so than any of Aronofsky's other films, The Wrestler is work that rewards rumination, offering an unexpected, pained study of the heart heart.