Mickey Rourke has earned that face. Every mile of hard living, every bar fight, delusional boxing match and botched plastic surgery is there, a badge of hubris if not courage. But maybe he has earned The Wrestler, too.
As the aged pro grappler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Rourke, in an Oscar-nominated role, has the weariness, the memories of glory days behind those eyes. The promise that the actor showed decades ago is born anew. It doesn't hurt that now he has the mug of a man hit by a few too many folding chairs, which is exactly what this terrific film by Darren Aronofsky requires.
“The Ram” is well into his 50s, working in a supermarket in the armpit of New Jersey, sleeping in his van when he can't make the rent on his battered trailer-home.
But weekends, The Ram still dreams. He still shoots up with steroids, still takes the abuse, suffers the bruises and cuts (some self-inflicted for effect) for the paying customers at this American Legion hall or that fourth-rate gym. A low-rent promoter dangles a carrot — a rematch of what was, 20 years ago, The Ram's finest hour, facing down The Ayatollah. Will his heart and his body hold out until then?
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The Ram has a sensitive side that makes him beloved by the younger wrestlers and the neighborhood kids. But he's lonely. He hasn't seen his daughter in years, and she's all that's left of his family. The only adult he can talk to about his fading hopes is a stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, also an Oscar nominee for the film). And far from being “the stripper with a heart of gold,” Cassidy always makes him pay.
The Wrestler is a surprisingly mainstream film from the arty Aronofsky (The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream). It's a movie with predictable pathos. All The Ram wants to do is form an impromptu family, with his angry, estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and maybe a stripper girlfriend. But it's so sharply observed that you might not mind. Rourke and Tomei give their scenes a kind of awkward tenderness that is real and brittle. She quotes The Passion of the Christ and sees parallels in the abuse heaped on the Nazarene and what The Ram can absorb. That Jesus, The Ram marvels, was “one tough dude.”
The filmmaker takes us into the dressing room, where the guys plan the night's bout, hiding slivers of razor blades that they can use to cut themselves for a crowd that wants blood. And he drags us into the ring for the sado-masochistic horrors of a “performance” with the “Necrobutcher,” a blood-sport specialist who willingly endures (and delivers) staples, barbed wire and broken glass, creating mayhem only a team of paramedics can clean up.
But it's the indignities of age that sting the most, two people who have used and abused their bodies trying to come to grips with the end of careers with a little humanity. The chance to play that poignant confusion is the real prize that Rourke and Tomei earn in The Wrestler.