Published at: Sept. 5, 2008, 1:07 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
Brooklyn-bred Darren Aronofsky has gone to New Jersey and made his NEBRASKA. As spare and haunting as Bruce Springsteen's acoustic masterwork, Aronofsky's THE WRESTLER is less reinvention than refinement: the relentless self-destruction of mind and body depicted in PI and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM has merged with THE FOUNTAIN's search for spiritual grace, while his audacious technique has been abandoned for a naturalistic approach that recalls the independent American cinema of the 1970s and 80s. This mostly suits Robert Siegel's straightforward narrative of a past-his-prime professional wrestler's fumble for redemption, but it emphatically agrees with Mickey Rourke, who owns the film as the breaking-down Randy "The Ram" Robinson.
Though the opening credits' combo of Pro Wrestling Illustrated clippings and Quiet Riot gets the film off to a raucous start, this exuberance evaporates once the tableau shifts to an elementary school classroom, where fortysomething Ram - dyed-blond tresses flowing and muscles almost rippling - girds for staged combat. It's an ignominious setting for a warrior, but the gymnasiums of the New Jersey school system appear to be the only venue left for grapplers of Ram's era; and while he appears to be in better physical shape than most of his contemporaries (i.e. he lacks the unflattering flab-to-muscle ratio of lifers like Ric Flair or Dusty Rhodes), that heavy, persistent cough is not a harbinger of happy things.
And yet Ram gamely goes through the motions for his remaining, hopelessly nostalgic fans, trading chops and elbows and clotheslines with a random "heel" until it's time to take to the top rope and deliver his finishing move, the "Ram Jam". This over-rehearsed spectacle may require Ram to draw his own blood (he heightens the drama by furtively slicing open his forehead with a razor blade - a common practice in the pro wrestling trade), but he's not complaining; this is the life he's chosen, and he's too far entrenched to be wishing for better now. Sure, he's got a dead-end puppy-dog crush on an aging stripper who works under the handle "Cassidy" (Marisa Tomei, every bit Rourke's equal), can barely pay his rent, and injects untold amounts of steroids into his body to stave off the sag; all that said, he seems to have made his peace with these minor disappointments. Besides, there's a big payday coming in a twentieth-anniversary rematch with his old nemesis The Ayatollah; as long as "Bob's willing to dust off the ol' turban", retirement, and god knows what else, can wait for another year or so.
But then, after a particularly brutal match (which builds from innocent face slapping to actual assault with a staple gun), Ram's heart gives out. Suddenly, his reckless regimen of steroids and booze is untenable; if there's any other way to make a living, Ram has got to find it soon or face the abyss. But first he must find a reason to live, which leads to an clumsy play for Cassidy's affections (she's more comfortable with Ram as a customer) and a disastrous attempt at reconnecting with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). It's in the reproachfulness of the latter that we're forced to square the affable, ingratiating Ram with the absent, unlikable father who turned Stephanie into a bitter young woman. For reasons that become clear later in the film, Ram stopped caring once the '80s concluded, and, rather than move on, he's opted to cling to his glory years. This is why he still rocks the hair-band locks and enters the ring to Quiet Riot's "Bang Your Head (Metal Health)"; but he's got to put all of that away for good if he's to successfully reconcile with Stephanie.
If Siegel's screenplay has a weakness, it's in the father/daughter dynamic, which is hampered in the early going by rote dialogue and shopworn situations. It's creaky, but Rourke and Wood finally elevate the material in a pivotal scene at a deserted boardwalk; watching tough-guy Rourke blink away tears as Ram begs forgiveness for wrecking Stephanie's childhood is doubly painful because it feels as if the actor is seeking atonement for his own mistakes (many of which have been permanently beaten into his face after a midlife go a professional boxing). For moviegoers who fell in love with the potential of Rourke via DINER or THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, this is heartbreaking stuff - especially since the actor's career peaked during the same decade in which Ram essentially stopped living. When Ram tells Cassidy, "I hated the fucking '90s", Rourke's performance becomes a confession (look to the IMDb to relive the missteps). And when he turns on the old charm while working a dreary shift at a supermarket deli counter, connecting with customers as he dishes out crummy-looking potato salad, it ascends to revelation. Where's this guy been for the last twenty years?
THE WRESTLER occasionally flirts with sentimentality, but Clint Mansell's understated score resists such temptation; he reflects mood rather than dictate it. Still, even when Aronofsky is nudging into uncomfortably mawkish territory, it feels like a ruse; the bottom just has to drop out at some point, right?. It does, but unlike the conclusions of PI or REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, there's exhilaration here. Ram may be gored on the horns of a losing proposition, but at least he's left with the dignity of choice: on his knees or off the top rope. It's a beautiful gesture, and it's the beginning of THE WRESTLER's claim to greatness. Smash to black. Then Springsteen. Acoustic Springsteen. Still at the end of every hard earned day, people find some reason to exist.