Darren Aronofsky's 2006 film The Fountain made my top ten for that year due to its audacity, over the top pretentiousness and its bursting at the seams historical/romance/philosophy epic qualities wrapped into a 90 minute package. The Wrestler is so far away from The Fountain it's shocking it was made by the same director. The fact that it was says something about Aronofsky's talent and the possibilities for his future films.
The Wrestler is getting all kinds of buzz for the performance of Mickey Rourke (Oscar nominated for best actor). The attention is deserved. Rourke is absolutely heartbreaking as the broken down wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson, who is hanging onto his former glory as a wrestling star in the 1980s. The Ram is barely surviving the lower level wrestling circuit, abusing his body for little pay and small crowds, who lives in a trailer or his beat up van. It's painful to watch.
I was worried that Rourke's performance would just be a freak show wrapped up in his own haunted past. It's not. While it's impossible to not think of Rourke's destructive slide downward in his personal life, there are ringing similarities between Rourke and The Ram--Rourke delivers an aching, sad, brutally honest performance as a man who has lost it all. His daughter is estranged, his beloved wrestling world seems to be slipping away and he has fading hopes on forging a relationship with anyone around him. All he has is his lost and last chances and if loses that--he's got nothing left.
There's lots of wrestling in the film. It took me back to the early 1980s when I was heavily into the regional professional circuit. My Saturdays were completely dedicated to wrestling when they came on local TV. The stuff in the ring and the behind the scenes action was accurate and riveting. When The Ram has to take on this guy in one of these extreme matches (these weren't around in my youth thank goodness)--think staple gun, barbed wire and glass in the ring--it is a ghastly display of bloodletting that makes The Ram's old school styled, choreographed matches seem quaint.
One of my long time favorites, the very lovely and talented Marisa Tomei plays a sweet stripper who forms a bond with Randy over dances and bar stool banter. She's also nominated for an Oscar in the best supporting actress category. Evan Rachel Wood plays the daughter he barely knows. Both women provide plenty of nice moments with Randy that show him trying to repair the damage that might be impossible to fix or to change.
The real surprise in The Wrestler is seeing how restrained Aronofsky is as a director. Aronofsky and restraint aren't too things that I'd put together as he's usually aiming for kinetic overkill but that kind of filmmaking would have destroyed the power of this simple story. Restraint works for The Wrestler. It's raw, honest, straight for the heart, no frills, gut wrenching, features a stunning performance from Mickey Rourke and was nearly my favorite film from 2008, finishing at number two behind Let the Right One In.