(No longer in theaters)
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Dec 17, 2008
Darren Aronofsky is our most brilliantly druggy filmmaker: His syntax transforms to match his characters’ feverish perceptions—to pull you into their radically altered states. The nature of the drug is different in every movie: swirling and fractured in Pi, transcendentally romantic in The Fountain. In his new film, The Wrestler, he induces a state of masochistic ecstasy—the oneness with the universe that comes from being pummeled and cut and watching one’s blood fly onto the canvas. The tragic hero is Randy “the Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), an aging pro-wrestler, once a star, with nothing real in his life but that Artaudian Theater of Cruelty in which men in mythically garish costumes perform brutal ballets before shrieking crowds. Beside Aronofsky’s bouts, the ones in Raging Bull seem like Japanese tea ceremonies. No matter how choreographed, the pounding is ferocious, and we see the world through Randy’s swimming perceptions. Even cringing, we feel his joy. He secretes a small razor in his costume and, down for the count, slices open his face to make the gore even splashier. We rise with him in triumph: I bleed, therefore I am.
The movie isn’t as world-shattering as those bouts: It’s a regretful-old-warrior weeper, in which God’s loneliest man attempts to reconcile with the bitter child (Evan Rachel Wood) he abandoned and reaches out to the only woman who shows him affection—a stripper (the ever-comely Marisa Tomei) who has the grace not to let him see her eyes wander in search of other lap-dance customers. We know that even if he touches the stripper’s heart and breaks through his daughter’s anger, he’ll screw it up because, after all, he’s only good for one thing in life, even if it kills him. Allusions to Christ are everywhere; the stripper talks about the carnage in The Passion of the Christ. Is Aronofsky being tongue in cheek? I don’t think he’s ever tongue in cheek.
This is a case where an actor makes the difference. Mickey Rourke was once among our most charismatic leading men: alert, wittily self-contained (he always seemed to be smiling at a private joke), with a high but seductive voice. Whatever the hell he did to himself, it worked for Sin City, in which the makeup for his monster-man avenger Marv brought out the freakish poetry in his distended physiognomy. In The Wrestler, his face has that poetry without the makeup. Rourke has long blond hair that makes him look like a battered lion, and his tight, swollen mask makes Randy’s struggle to bare his soul even more momentous. It’s dumb, it’s outlandish, but smashing other people’s heads and getting his own smashed back really does complete him.