Wrestler, The: Mickey Rourke is Astonishing But So Is Director Aronofsky

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” which won the coveted Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, is a major triumph not only for its star, Mickey Rourke, but also for its director, the versatile and talented Aronofsky, who has stamped the film with his own signature and personal vision.


“The Wrestler” is only the third American film in history to win the Venice Festival’s grand prize. One day later, it was acquired by Fox Searchlight hours after its gala screening at the Toronto Film Festival.

At the film’s center is a man who is wrestling not only in the ring with his comic-book villain opponents, but with the damage that life has inflicted on his body and soul.  The film unfolds against two starkly compelling landscapes.  One is the sheer spectacle, visceral action and underground intensity of one of America’s most unusual and emblematic sports. The other is the haunting inner terrain of a man desperately seeking in defiance of all his flaws to matter. 


As played by Mickey Rourke in a spectacular comeback, which should guarantee him a spot on the Best Actor Oscar nominations list comes January, Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a man who just wants to keep doing the only thing he knows how to do, yet he is also a man who has run out of options.  A working class hero, who rose to fame on the pro wrestling circuit, he now wrestles for die-hard fans in high school auditoriums yet can barely make the rent on his trailer home and is battling back the ravages of age on his battered body.  He takes the brutalities and defeats of his life with humility and self-deprecating humor, but when a fierce bout leaves Randy’s mortality in question, it seems his career has finally come to an end, leaving him without a future or purpose.


The response to the film by critics has been positive, though most reviews (including me) have focused their discussions on Rourke’s bravura performance, one of the strongest we have seen this year, and 2009 has been (again) terrific for male, if not female, actors.


A good actors director, Aronofsky has coxed another great performance from Marisa Tomei, who plays a vet dancer-stripper and fellow hard-rock aficionado at the local club, who becomes Randy’s confidante and object of romantic and erotic desire.


Aronofsky’s first three films, each critically acclaimed, took him in vastly divergent directions.  His debut, “PI,” a thriller about a mathematician searching for a number that could change the world, won the Directing Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and an Independent Spirit Award for Aronofsky’s inventive screenplay about the quest for knowledge, power and God. 


He next directed the searing and touching Oscar-nominated drama based on Hubert Selby’s novel, “Requiem for a Dream,” about four people whose lives spin out of control by addiction.  The third feature, much misunderstood by critics, was a richly stylized, sci-fi fantasy “The Fountain,” an epic story of love and mortality spanning more than 1000 years, starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz (who’s Aronofsky’s wife). 


With “The Wrestler, Aronofsky has made yet another stark departure, a gritty and intensely moving drama.  Sports have been a major part of American culture for decades with its mix of comedy, pathos and raw reality, but filmmakers few have made a serious film about professional wrestling. 


Although Aronofsky was never a diehard wrestling fan, he remembers going to see Hulk Hogan and Tony Atlas square off at Madison Square Garden as a kid.  Ever since that encounter, the question of what it would be like to live in that world has stuck with him. 


“The idea of doing a movie about a wrestler has been floating around in my head for six or seven years,” notes Aronofsky. “I started to develop some of the ideas with producer Scott Franklin and discovered he was a bigger wrestling fan as a kid than I was and knew something about it.  The more we looked into that world, the more interesting it became.  Then, I met this great writer Robert Siegel, who used to be editor of ‘The Onion,’ and told him about the idea and he just got it instantly. The three of us spent the next three years together developing the story into a movie.”


Fifteen-Minute Fame


Thus was born the character of Randy “the Ram” Robinson, a man caught up in a culture where the disposability of popular heroes is accepted as fact.  You get your 15-minutes of fame and then before you know it the crowd has moved on to cheer someone younger, stronger, flashier and even crazier than you.  Yet the desire to be loved, to be adored, to be the mythic victor, even for those exhilarating few minutes you’re on stage, never goes away.  In Randy’s case, his strongest drive is to recapture that heroic feeling, fueled only by sheer willpower, because his body is long past its prime.


Siegel’s resulting screenplay was nominally a fable of a downtrodden sports hero seeking one last triumph.  However, underneath, there was a lean, rugged, Hemingway-esque parable about the struggle for honor, dignity and love among men and women on the tougher side of life. 


“‘The Wrestler” has elements of a sports film, but I always saw it as a human drama, more of an intimate portrait of life,” says Aronofsky.  “You don’t have to be a fan of wrestling to enjoy the film.  It’s about any person who wakes up one day and realizes he can’t do what he used to be able to do, the things that used to matter to him–t’s about that moment in life a lot of people face.” 


From the beginning, Aronofsky saw the story as laced with humor, reflected in the outrageousness of wrestling’s over-the-top characters and creatively shocking technique, the irreverent attitude of Randy himself, especially when he takes on a job at the deli counter to make ends meet.  In other words, it was a chance for Aronofsky to go in a new direction, exploring not only the comic pleasures of wrestling, but also the darkly funny absurdities of everyday life.


Man in Dire Personal Straits


As the story developed and the team penetrated the secretive world of pro wrestling, it became clear that wrestling, with its focus on the body’s vulnerability and resilience, on suffering in extremis, on the playing out of good versus evil, was a  metaphorical background for the story of a man in dire personal straits. 


Aronofsky, Siegel and Franklin were not interested in taking an academic but a humanistic approach, honing in on one wrestler and stripping him down to the universal sense of longing and survival. Still, to do so, they knew they first needed to immerse themselves in today’s wrestling world to see how a man in the thick of it would experience it, especially a pro at the tail end of a moderately illustrious career that he can no longer sustain. Thus began an intensive period of research.


The filmmakers became especially intrigued by the secret language and honor code of wrestlers.  “They use a language similar to carny people–for example, they speak of the audience as ‘marks,’ notes Aronofsky.  Many wrestling terms, such as ‘face’ and ‘heel,’ which refer respectively to the good guy and the villain in a match, were woven into the fabric of the script. 


A generous artist, Aronofsky gives full credit to his central actor: “When Mickey Rourke came on, he completely changed the character into his own thing.  He took the character and breathed his own life into it.


Now it’s time for us critics to acknowledge Aronofsky’s major contribution to the high-caliber of Rourke and Tomei’s acting and to the whole look, tone, and texture of this haunting existential film, which continues to linger in my mind three months after I have seen it.  “The Wrestler” is without a doubt one of the best American films of the year, largely due to Aronofsky’s talent, skill, and vision. 


See Review of The Wrestler and Longer Interview With Aronofsky