Wrestler, The: Aronofsky’s Venice Fest Winner, Featuring Mickey Rourke in Big Comeback

 Mark your Oscar ballots: As of today, Mickey Rourke has given the most dramatically impressive, not to mention iconic, performance of the year in “The Wrestler,” Darren Aronofsky’s fourth feature.

It¬ís a major comeback after several “small” comebacks. A dissertation could be written about Rourke’s career and off-screen life over the past 20 years, but this is not the place or time. Suffice is to say that the brilliant director Darren Aronofsky has found a way to engage the actor as no other helmer has had before, not even when Rourke was a promising thespian in the early 1980s, registering strong in such pictures as “Rumblefish,” “Diner,” and “91/2 Weeks.”

“The Wrestler” had its world premiere at the Venice Film Fest, where it won the top prize, Golden Lion, then screened at the Toronto Film Fest in the Gala Premieres section and will play at the New York Film Fest. The picture will be released theatrically in December for one week to qualify for Oscar considerations, before opening wide in January 2009.

Changing pace himself, Aronofsky has made a movie that could be described as the opposite of his last one, “The Fountain,” at attempt at a personal-metaphysical fantasy-epic that most critics and audiences did not care about; I was in minority defending his effort.

Though he has made only four features to date, each one is vastly different, thematically and stylistically, from the cerebral Sundance hit “Pi” to the gut-wrenching “Requiem for a Dream” (overall his best picture to date) to “The Fountain” and now “The Wrestler,” an emotionally tense and intense meditation on marginal life in sports–and also the sports movie genre.

In this picture, director and star seem to have enjoyed an intimate collaboration, which brings the best in them, even though the script was written by Robert Siegel. And clearly, it’s not lost on Aronofsky, a bright, well-read cineaste, that wrestling shares many characteristics in common with acting, what with the possibly quick rise to fame and the equally potential for decline and loss in glamour, power, and other privileged rewards.

We get a glimpse of the young, handsome and vibrant Rourke, during the main titles, though later, Aronofsky increases suspense by delaying the sights of his star as he looks now, aged, shabby and wretched, a result of a tumultuous prizefighting career and many plastic surgeries (some reportedly botched). The first full close-up of Rourke, who’s only 53, generates pain, grief, reflexivity, and memories of both warm and cold nostalgia.

That said, though occasionally “The Wrestler” threatens to become sentimental, it’s far from nostalgic, in large part due to Aronofsky¬ís rigorous discipline and ironic and matter-of-fact approach to his tale and its central figure and star. Nor is the saga as prosaic as the title suggests; in fact, the film could have easily been called “Requiem for a Prizefighter” (In 1962, Ralph Nelson directed a grim noir sports film called “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” adapted to the screen by Rod Sterling from his teleplay and starring Anthony Quinn as a fighter whose ring career is over, forcing him into a life of corruption and degradation).

It’s always a tough challenge to make a likeable, sympathetic picture about losers, defeat and failure, which was one of the distinctive attributes of John Huston¬ís oeuvre, including “Fat City,” a brilliant, vastly underestimated movie about the margins of the sports world, to which Aronofsky’s new film bears resemblance, both thematically and tonally.

Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a one-time wrestling winner, still hustling way over his prime. In the powerful opening acts, the movie observes Ram’s ordinary existence, his daily routines, how he continues to play aggressively in low-rent arenas, and to take the physical, emotional, and verbal assaults that are integral to wrestling as a way of life.

The struggling Randy can barely pay his rent, but he still spends money on his physical appearance, dying his long hair, visiting a tanning salon, using steroids to stay in shape, all signals of a bygone era (mostly the 1980s but also 1990s) with strong allusions to Rourke’s own lifestyle.

The existential, slice-of-life saga unfolds as a series of embarrassments, humiliations, and defeats and how Randy responds to them. When the washed-up Randy is cast out of the ring by a heart attack, he doesn¬ít give up entirely. In a wonderful scene, he challenges a neighborhood boy to a game of Nintendo wrestling. And in one telling encounter, when Ram asks for extra shifts, the nasty supermarket manager (Todd Barry) who humiliates Randy, says, “Don’t you spend Saturdays sitting on other guy’s faces”

A good actor’s director, Aronofsky has also coaxed strong performances from his lead actresses. Now that she has become a supporting thespian, Marisa Tomei continues to improve, and does a fine job as a tough, down-to-earth, but also pathetic who Randy befriends and for whom the clients mostly feel pity. Tomei was quite impressive last year in Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” in which, by the way, she also exposed her breasts.

If the subplot about Ram’s attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is not as effective as the others, it’s because of its over-familiarity from other family melodramas about missing or errant parents and their eternally bruised, suffering children.

As noted, for “The Wrestler,” Aronofsky has adopted a new approach, paradigm, and visual style, no longer relying on his frequent collaborators, the lenser Matthew Libatique and the cutter Jay Rabinowitz. The film’s harsh, though often poetic look, and sharp pacing with occasionally elegiac tone should be credited to the gifted indie cinematographer Maryse Alberti and editor Andrew Weisblum.

There is at least one bravura, highly charged sequence that intercuts exhibition match with its aftermath in a locker room, encouraging the viewers to bring their own varied readings, based on countless sports film and knowledge of Rourke’s work and life.


Randy “the Ram” Robinson – Mickey Rourke
Cassidy/Pam – Marisa Tomei
Stephanie – Evan Rachel Wood


A Wild Bunch (France) presentation of a Protozoa Pictures (U.S.) production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.)
Produced by Scott Franklin, Darren Aronofsky. Executive producers, Vincent Maraval, Agnes Mentre, Jennifer Roth. Co-producer, Mark Heyman. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay, Robert Siegel.
Camera: Maryse Alberti.
Editor: Andrew Weisblum.
Music: Clint Mansell; music supervisors, Jim Black, Gabe Hilfer.
Production designer: Timothy Grimes.
Art director: Matthew Munn.
Set decorator: Theo Sena.
Costume designer: Amy Westcott.
Sound: Ken Ishii.

Running time: 110 Minutes.