Published at: Nov. 7, 2008, 6:56 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
Darren Aronofsky’s best movie. Easily.
That’s the short answer.
Mickey Rourke’s awesome. And for the first time in a long time, I mean that in a specific and not a general way.
Let’s disconnect from the boring routine of awards talk and just discuss what it is he brings to the table as a performer. I’m a Rourke fan from the start. He was a hero to film fans when he started to stand out in small, interesting performances. BODY HEAT gave him a nice moment or two, and he made the most of it. DINER was a favorite for me and my friends from the moment we saw it, a much-quoted much-imitated favorite. And Rourke, in particular, was a big part of why. He followed up with RUMBLE FISH, which was another big film for me and my buddies. He was The Motorcycle Boy, for god’s sake. And then, to cement the reputation that was building from film to film, he made THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE. Which is, for the record, crazy fucking good.
And then whatever. Lots of years of whatever. Rourke is the patron saint of bad choices. He’s done a lot wrong over the years, and he’s squandered the goodwill that pretty much any discerning film fan felt when he was starting out. Even in the weird and lean years, he was spinning gold in all sorts of films. ANGEL HEART. BARFLY. JOHNNY HANDSOME. YEAR OF THE DRAGON. THE RAINMAKER. He’s been relegated to the occasional interesting cameo or stunt casting like his turn as Marv in SIN CITY, which I quite liked. I thought it was the right use of him, since he’s a cartoon these days. And I don’t mean that in a mean way or a superficial way. Whatever Rourke has done to himself over the years, it’s been catastrophic. The young man of 1982 and 1983 is buried in there somewhere, and occasionally, his eyes peer out of this calcium mask, this lump of scar tissue and sadness that is Mickey Rourke’s head. Occasionally, his smile surfaces, just for a moment, plays across his features just enough to remind you just how movie-star pretty he was, and then it’s gone. But those moments are all deployed to devastating effect here.
This isn’t just me waxing rhapsodic about Rourke’s former glory, either. That’s easy, but it really wouldn’t matter if this film wasn’t good. And it’s more than good. The script by Robert D. Siegel is very small scale, very quiet, and even the moments where things crescendo are played as small controlled exchanges of emotional gunfire rather than giant double-barreled histrionics. Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler who was once a huge name in the big show. The opening titles, making exceptional use of Quiet Riot, lay out Randy’s glory days as a montage of articles and programs and photographs and merchandise. And then, with a hard cut to “20 Years Later” and Rourke sitting half-naked in a locker room, Aronfsky tells you exactly what you’re in for. This is not ROCKY. This is not a sports movie in any traditional genre sense. Instead, it’s a movie about living past your expired-by date, somehow continuing after it seems like most of the world would prefer for you to give up. Randy still makes a living... but just barely. The places he plays now are community rec centers and armories, warehouse spaces instead of real arenas. The glory days of the Garden are long since gone, and for the first time, the magnificent wreck that is Mickey Rourke makes perfect sense with the character. I was concerned that the film was going to be maudlin or too obvious in its attempts to jerk those tears. But it’s the opposite. The film earns every single bit of emotion that it asks you to feel because it never pushes for it. Either you’re going to feel an empathic connection to Randy, or you’re not, and I did from the moment he appeared onscreen. I think it’s an amazing, human piece of work, and it’s a reminder that the name everyone threw around critically during the early days of Rourke’s career was “Brando,” and with this film, I think he’s earned that comparison in the most complete and complimentary way ever. This is the sort of performance that ON THE WATERFRONT and STREETCAR promised to audiences when they exploded onto the screen in the ‘50s. This is the sort of honest portrayal of the uncommon soul of the most common of men that I can think of in a while, and I think it takes someone like Rourke to make it work. When his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) screams at him, “YOU! ARE! A! FUCK-UP!”, no one else could stand there and absorb that statement and embody it in quite the way that Rourke can. Randy can’t argue with that. Doesn’t even try. Only complete failure after great success can teach you the kind of humility on display here. You can’t fake it. You can’t act it because you can’t fully understand that kind of loss. Rourke does.
And what pushes it over the top is that it’s not a one-man show. This isn’t just “Awww, look at poor Mick... er, Randy.” That wouldn’t be enough for me to say that this is the best film Aronofsky’s made so far. I am a huge fan of his three films so far, each in a different way, and I love the precision of them, the particular voice that you could see evolve from film to film. But at the same time, that sort of filmmaking can become a trap. I think Wes Anderson is in danger of trapping himself into a style that he can’t shake, even if the material calls for it. I’d like to think that he could make a film that didn’t look like RUSHMORE and TENENBAUMS and LIFE AQUATIC and DARJEELING... but I don’t know if he’s got another BOTTLE ROCKET in him, another shaggy little story that feels spontaneous and loose and lived-in. And until now, I didn’t know if Aronofsky had one of those in him, either, which makes THE WRESTLER such a complete charmer. In his intro to the film at the AFI Fest screening tonight, he called the movie “an experiment,” and I bet it was. I’ll bet he set a whole different set of challenges and criteria for himself on this film than he ever has before. I lovelovelove the collaboration he’s had so far with Matthew Libatique, his cinematographer on his first three films, but it was a brilliant choice to hire Maryse Alberti to shoot this one. Alberti’s best known for documentary work, like the amazing CRUMB or the recent Oscar-winner TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, while also being a longtime collaborator with Todd Haynes and the shooter of such films as JOE GOULD’S SECRET, HAPPINESS, and THE ONION MOVIE. His documentary background serves Aronofsky well here, as the camera is an active participant, right there close to Randy through the entire movie, right up close on those eyes. And with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), the stripper who Randy harbors a not-so-secret love for, the camera is unforgiving. I think Tomei is incredibly sexy these days, but there’s not a moment in this movie where she doesn’t look every day of her forty-something years alive. She looks like a real woman, without any glamour or special lighting and filters. There’s the make-up she wears onstage at the club, but Alberti gets it right, lets you see past that. Same with Evan Rachel Wood, who positively glows in a lot of the films she’s made. Cinematographers can play up the peaches’n’cream complexion and her eyes and her hair, but Alberti goes the other way, shooting her so she looks like a fairly typical girl in her 20s. She’s pretty, but there’s nothing “movie star” about her here.
The supporting cast features some interesting work from stand-up comics Todd Barry and Judah Friedlander, and neither one is doing overtly comic work. Friedlander in particular is almost unrecognizable at first, and as a guy who makes his living promoting autograph shows and tiny wrestling events, he doesn’t overplay it or try to make it funny. Barry plays Wayne, the manager at the grocery store where Randy picks up extra hours to supplement his income. I also really liked Ernest Miller, who plays Randy’s greatest opponent in the ring, The Ayatollah, who retired years ago and who agrees to a 20th anniversary rematch with Randy. He’s not in much of the film, but he’s great. All the guys who play Randy’s opponents in the ring do really solid work. There’s one guy, The Necro Butcher, who plays a sort of hillbilly wrestler with a penchant for using a staple gun in the ring, who is pretty amazing in his big in-the-ring scene with Randy. And the cutting of that sequence is probably the most “considered” out of the entire film, as Aronofsky fiddles with time, but just a wee little bit, showing us how fucked up Randy is after the fight just before he shows us the moments in the fight that led to each new nick, hole, or gash. Great stuff. There’s another fight, this one opposite a mohawked guy, that really works because we see them discussing their plan for the match ahead of time, and then executing it, and they both really excel at showing us how even if you know who’s going to win, there’s nothing “fake” about what these guys are doing. It is a sport, it is a performance, and it is physical punishment on a level that I can’t imagine enduring for years and years and years. I can’t imagine any professional wrestler being upset by the way the film portrays the lifestyle. It’s as honest as BEYOND THE MAT, Barry Blaustein’s great documentary, and it definitely shows what sort of physical and spiritual toll it can take to leave that much of yourself out there on the mat every single night.
I love everything about the film. I love the choice to use a lot of ‘80s hair metal on the soundtrack. I love when Cassidy and Randy commiserate over just how much the ‘90s sucked. I love Tomei’s work as a woman who tells herself whatever she needs to in order to face her job every night. I love the matter of fact way some of the film’s biggest emotional moments unfold, how we cut right into a few of them, already in progress, so nothing feels like conventional scene structure.
And I love the ending. The whole thing, right down to the absolute right last shot. Endings can be difficult, but Aronofsky absolutely knows how to wrap this one up, and that Bruce Springsteen song is perfectly placed over those end credits, exactly the song we need as the final moments resonate. I was deeply moved tonight by every choice made in bringing this simple story of The Ram’s efforts to live a life on his terms, doing what he loves, with as much heart as possible. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to call it a great movie, and one I think will stand as a very special entry in the filmographies of all involved.
Special thanks to the AFI Fest for the invite to tonight’s centerpiece gala screening, and I sincerely wish Fox Searchlight all the luck in the world with this one. This deserves to find a big huge broad audience. There’s nothing arthouse about this. It’s MARTY for the 21st century, honest heartbreak that I hope is embraced in a big way when it’s released later this year.