Tuesday, December 30, 2008
The Wrestler ***1/2
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
You may never have seen a wrestling match in your entire life and you still will be rooting for Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Rourke), a professional wrestler who is way past his prime and looking for a comeback in Darren Aronofsky's touching character study.
"The Ram" was big in the 80's, where he even had an action figure shaped after him (and which he carries in his car with him), now he's living in a trailer, working part time at a supermarket and doing small venues aware that he's old news in the modern wrestling scene while trying to rekindle his relationship with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Wood) and trying to initiate a romance with a stripper named Cassidy (Tomei).
If everything about the film sounds like a cliché it very well should, the surprise is in how after watching it, it's been everything but that.
Centered on the remarkable performance by Rourke, "The Wrestler" takes a harsh look at a society where the underdogs only get their due in films like this (one of the "best" compliments you can give the film is thinking it was inspired by a true story).
Rourke disappears into Robinson, with a bulked up body, blonde dyed hair and the remains of what one was a face he embodies the pain the man has put up with for so long.
The only thing that reminds him there is a world outside his career is his ailing heart, which both physically and emotionally bring him down to Earth for a moment where he faces that he has to change in order to remain alive.
What Rourke preserves is an intense charm, aided by a sweet, almost paternal voice. When we see him playing a video game with a child, we don't find it surprising that the kid isn't terrified of him and when later he has to work behind the deli counter, the women he serves are enchanted by his brutish kindness.
Yet all of this hides a pain that he doesn't know how to channel. He is a bad father because he doesn't know how else to be; Rourke shines in his scenes with Wood, who gives an affecting performance containing her adolescent resentment until exactly the right moment.
Sometimes you wonder why Robinson chose this job and Rourke makes us understand that it might be perhaps because within it he has found the only place where he can control the pain he receives and the one he inflicts upon others.
Because if this kind of selfish sacrifice, his performance is almost sublime.
Tomei plays his emotional counterpart, at first being almost some sort of a twin. They both play entertainers who must submit to the fantasies of their customers (one remarkable scene cuts between the two of them tidying up for their jobs), both have to be careful in establishing the limit where the job ends and the life begins.
The actress, one of the few who can be completely nude dancing on a pole and stir feelings of kindness, avoids playing her as the stripper with the heart of gold and goes for a raw approach where not even she's sure she'll end up.
"The Wrestler" is shot in verité style by Maryse Alberti, who gives it even more of a documentary feel. The cinematographer's work with the camera is also a wondruous thing to behold, most of the film the camera follows "The Ram", reminiscing the moments before the wrestlers are sent off into the stage and also giving everything a rare kind of sadness making us think that perhaps everything good about Robinson has been left in his past.
Aronofsky details the behind the scenes of wrestling, where we are witnesses of the tricks and maneuvers they plan to put on the show we end up watching. In a way it's as if we're watching the movie being made in front of our eyes, because even when we know for a fact everything we're about to see has been prepared for our entertainment, there is an amount of truth within this that makes it remain compelling.
Those who aren't fans of wrestling will surely wonder what is there to see in a fight where the winner has been resolved before it even begins, where the pain and blood have all been calculated.
What is it that charms viewers about this showcase of artifice? Those who care to see beyond this will find a beautiful metaphor within the spectacle they're witnessing, as wrestling becomes comparable with cinema where the fates of the characters involved have been resolved way before the projection begins, but the journey can't help but feel thrilling nevertheless.
When talking about a match with some of his fellow wrestlers, "The Ram" asks them if they enjoyed it, after getting an affirmative response he stops for a while, points to the audience and remarks "more important, they liked it".