The Wrestler

(2008) *** 1/2 R
105 min. Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director: Darren Aronofsky. Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Judah Friedlander, Ajay Naidu.

/content/films/3294/3.jpgWhen self-deception and outward lies succumb to the sinking feeling one's life has been misspent, it's time for a change. The stress of such an unhealthy life is bound to shorten one's days, making the window for personal resurrection narrower. Especially under mounting pressure, can an old dog learn new tricks? It's the question facing former wrestling superstar Randy “The Ram” Robinson and, by implication, Mickey Rourke, the man who plays him in The Wrestler. Darren Aronofsky’s character study also asks an implicit question of its audience: do we hold some responsibility for the hell of our heroes?

A study in faded glory, Rourke’s “Ram” ekes out an existence doing low-rent, punishing wrestling shows and memorabilia signings and living low on the hog. His body has been ravaged by his profession and the years, every one of which is evident in Rourke’s bloated, misshapen face (the result of Rourke's return to boxing, which coincided with an acting career in tailspin). Juicing and pill-popping don’t help Randy, his ripped body, bleached blond hair, and fake tan belying his failing health and his off-hours accessories: a hearing aid and glasses. Rourke's muscular appearance cannot help but conjure thoughts of method acting: is this body possible for the actor without unnatural enhancement? Regardless, Rourke has the natural enhancement of his own baggage as a faded star who squandered his potential and burned plenty of bridges: here is an actor unusually in sync with a role, indeed what seems to be the role of his career.

Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel play up the quiet desperation of Randy's trailer-park life, where his friends are the neighborhood kids and his forays to the strip club are met with wariness by Cassidy, the exotic dancer on whom he has a crush (that’d be Marisa Tomei, proving once more that she has a body to die for, with acting chops to match). All but alone, Randy resolutely hides his problems from the wrestling peers with whom he shares only a glad-handing superficiality; rather, he attempts to confide in Cassidy even though his relationship with her teeters dangerously close to banned-for-life stalker ("The club and the real world—they don't mix," she says). Happily for the hapless Randy, she decides to give him a little more rope: in helping him shop for his estranged daughter Stephanie (a fine Evan Rachel Wood), Cassidy discovers the sweetness under the guy she's only known topless in the stench and dark of her own private hell. Besides, they have something in common as body-centric entertainers with a demeaning edge to their work.

Randy's efforts to reconnect with Stephanie after years of neglect are even more tentative, as she has spent those years bottling terrible anger. "You want me to take care of you!" she yells. "Where the fuck were you when I needed you to take care of me?" Still, there's hope here, too, as Randy's urge to be better noticeably emerges. A humble victory with Stephanie leads to a great moment in a performance full of them: Rourke letting the word "Wow" escape from his lips (most of the time, Randy speaks in a raspy growl, even when in a jovial mood). A third arena of hope darkens early: a 20th anniversary rematch with old "adversary" The Ayatollah (real name: Bob) that holds the threat of delivering a K.O. to Randy's health. When Randy is forced to see a doctor, he explains, "Doc, I'm a professional wrestler," only to be told, "That's not a good idea." Is it possible his life has been one big bad idea?

Among The Wrestler's failings is the phoniness of its premise: is it possible a star once as bright as Randy's (akin to Hulk Hogan or at least Randy "Macho Man" Savage) has so few options in the age of '80s nostalgia, reality TV, and the internet? Accept that "what if," though, and Aronofsky swiftly sets the hook for his refined Rocky. The director establishes a motif of shooting Randy from behind—beginning with the archetypal "into the arena and into the ring" shot—partly to build suspense for the ever-startling sight of Rourke's face and partly to leave us with our own speculation as to what's going through the man's mind and our own thoughts at Randy's sad milieu (like his jacket with conspicuously ripped seams, the dress-to-impress inverse of his spangly tights).

/content/films/3294/2.jpgEven those typically turned off by Rourke may be surprised how strong of a rooting interest the actor and his director are able to stoke, and how likeable at his core Randy turns out to be. One of the best aspects of Aronofsky's film is that its lows are low, but its highs are high. For all the despair, The Wrestler has some of the funniest moments of the year (certainly in a "prestige" fall film) and downright gentle character interaction to counterpoint the insistent, visceral Roman Coliseum brutality of Randy's work.

Siegel and Aronofsky are at pains to reveal how Randy bleeds for his art, and for the bloodthirsty fans who've gathered to watch the action-figure brand of passion play (folding chairs, staple guns, mouse traps, and a bit of razor concealed under tape are among the "spots," or tricks of the trade, that prompt Randy to opine, "I'll show you fake"). Speaking of passion plays, Siegel overdoes it on the symbolism, positioning The Ram as an all-American Christ figure, bleeding in the ring for our sins. The Ram has enough sins of his own, and they’re what make The Wrestler so fascinating.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio

Street date: 4/21/2009

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Fox's Blu-ray edition of The Wrestler maintains the film's gritty theatrical look with spot-on color and every bit of detail that the source provides. The fine image is matched by DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio that likewise doesn't miss a trick. The only thing keeping this disc (and its DVD counterpart) from perfection is the conspicuous absence of any kind of interview or commentary with the Oscar-nominated stars, Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei. Producer-director Darren Aronofsky is on hand throughout the making-of doc, though he does not provide a commentary. Perhaps if the discs sell well, Fox might double-dip with a "Collector's Edition" to supplant this special edition?

In the meantime, these discs offer a few bonus features that are nothing to sneeze at. The centerpiece is an extensive, all-access, making-of documentary called "Within the Ring" (42:43, SD). Along with clips, outtakes and great fly-on-the-wall behind-the-scenes footage, we get interviews with Aronofsky, producer Scott Franklin, Clint Mansell, co-producer Mark Heyman, production designer Tim Grimes, stunt coordinator Doug Crosby, editor Andy Weisblum, cinematographer Maryse Albert, Evan Rachel Wood, writer Rob Siegel, executive producer Jennifer Roth, and wrestlers Dylan Summers, Armond "Kid U.S.A." Ciceri, Tommy Farra, and Mike Miller.

"Wrestler Round Table" (25:23, SD) finds Damon Andrews moderating a discussion with Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake, Lex Luger, "Diamond" Dallas Page, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, and Greg "The Hammer" Valentine. The wrestling stars of yesteryear discuss their opinions of the film and share some of their own experiences from their careers in the ring.

Also included is "'The Wrestler' Music Video - Written and Performed by Bruce Springsteen" (3:59, SD) and a Digital Copy of the film on Disc Two.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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