The Wrestler abandons the experimental visuals and editing that previously characterized Darren Aronofsky's filmography in Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, and instead delivers in a stark, lean vérité style one of the greatest character studies to grace screens this decade. It's not a work entirely free from cliché, but Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, the titular wrestler, is depicted in such a raw, sad, and cinematically elegant way that his plight becomes one of the finest cinematic stories of 2008, the underdog story of an aging athlete free from swelling melodrama; the cold mirror of Rocky Balboa.
Randy is a living fossil. Not because he's particularly old in the grand scheme of things, hovering somewhere in his late fifties, but because he steadfastly refuses to evolve, clinging desperately and defiantly to the specter of the 80s, which he speaks of with awed reverence usually reserved for myth. That was a decade when he was a master showman, the hero of his fake sport, the idol of thousands of wrestling fans, and even a playable character in an NES wrestling game (which he still owns and plays, a last, tenuous link to his glory days).
But times have not been kind to The Ram, and the once-great entertainer now makes ends meet via a grocery store job he loathes. He can't make rent, sleeps in his van, and his only daughter won't speak to him. Refusing to acknowledge present circumstances, he continues sculpting and injecting steroids, working increasingly dire off-circuit wrestling shows to smaller and smaller crowds, pursuing the dream of getting back on top of a game that's long since left him behind. To watch Randy try to sell VHS tapes of old fights to a handful of aged fans at a depressing, sparsely-attended wrestling convention is to see how far behind the world has left the wrestler, how nostalgia can consume a man from the inside until nothing remains but a husk.
Lest I make The Wrestler sound too dry and dreary for its own good, I'll emphasize that there's plenty of laughter here, both with The Ram and at his expense, or, in the case of one scene where he brings his own touch of showmanship to his detested deli counter job, possibly both. He's a dumb old slab of beef and the movie never takes pains to make him more likable than such a creature would be in real life, but the juxtaposition of Randy and the exotic modern world often generates a warmly humorous friction, as seen when a neighborhood boy tries to explain to Randy the existence of post-NES video games, or when he clumsily theorizes that his daughter might be a lesbian due to her female roommate.
The wrestling matches are merely a framing device, not the point of the movie, and it's made perfectly clear that they're carefully rigged and scripted down to the weapons the wrestlers will use on each other. But the backstage view of the "sport" is fascinating and the fights are brutal despite their rigged nature, with the chairs, tables, ladders, barbed wire, and in one case staple gun that the wrestlers use on each other as real as the blood they beget. These wrestlers are showmen of a selfless order who sacrifice their bodies at the expense of much pain to entertain, and this element of the movie is engrossing, particularly watching Randy get sewn and stitched up after one particularly bloody match while exchanging pleasantries with the man who just brutalized him onstage.
But why The Wrestler truly works so well comes down to one element: Mickey Rourke. He's in every scene, damn near every frame of the movie and carries the entire thing on his shoulders, and I don't for one moment hesitate to say that it stands right up with Daniel Day-Lewis's performances in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood as one of the absolute best of the decade; method acting at its evolved, jaw-dropping peak. To say he deserves the Oscar is a hilarious understatement. He brings unparalleled depth and emotion to the character and, while the movie isn't quite a one-man show (Marisa Tomei is also very good as the stripper Randy befriends, who, as a stripper in her forties, is quickly becoming as antiquated as the wrestler in his fifties), it's as close as anything I've seen all year.
The Wrestler is a fine addition to Aronofsky's already-impressive filmography, and stands with the best raw and undiluted character studies in the annals of film and literature too. It's a great movie.
5 Stars out of 5