Thursday, January 15, 2009

Review - The Wrestler

It has been said that 90% of a director's job is casting, but in the case of a film like The Wrestler, it's tempting to nudge that percentage up a little. After watching Darren Aronofsky's picture, it's impossible to imagine anyone other than Mickey Rourke taking on the role of Randy "The Ram" Robinson and dominating the picture in the way he does. This is one of those cases where the performance is about more than mere acting, and we can see a whole lifetime of regret and sadness pouring out through the actor's eyes, which still occasionally sparkle under that swollen face. Rourke's visage has changed a lot over the past twenty years, and he barely resembles the sleek, handsome young actor who briefly blazed a trail through the 80's, but he has never been more compelling or empathetic than he is here, as a self-professed "broken down piece of meat".

Rourke anchors The Wrestler, and without him (and without Marisa Tomei, who offers sterling support) the movie would barely exist; for aside from the commanding performances on show, The Wrestler is pretty thin stuff. It's the kind of story we've seen a dozen times before done in a dozen different ways, and Aronofsky doesn't have much to bring to the scenario that's fresh, with the film finding and embracing every hoary old cliché a picture like this could possible throw up. Rourke's Randy was a big name in the 80's – his bout against his nemesis The Ayatollah has passed into legend – but now he's getting by on whatever he can scrape together from a part-time supermarket job and the bruising wrestling matches he still takes part in. One of The Wrestler's chief pleasures lies in the way Aronofsky acknowledges the fakery surrounding the sport without short-changing the brutality and physicality of events inside the ring. We see the fighters in the locker room before their matches, choreographing their moves and deciding the outcome before the first bell has rung, but when they take a hit during the bout, they get hit hard.

The Wrestler is good at capturing the sense of camaraderie that exists between these men, as well as the bleak futures that lie ahead for most of them. In one scene, Randy attends a fan convention, and between signing autographs, he casts an eye over his fellow veterans – one is in a wheelchair, another has a catheter bag poking out from under his trouser leg. These peeks backstage are far more interesting than the fights themselves, which are bloody and hectic, but not shot with any kind of imagination by Aronofsky, although this film does mark a real change of pace from the director after three films in which his aesthetic grew increasingly stylised. Shot on a tiny budget with handheld cameras and natural lighting, the film is a far cry from his last feature – the dazzling but baffling flop The Fountain – and his unadorned vérité style actually recalls the Dardenne brothers rather than any standard Hollywood fare.

Unfortunately, Robert Siegel's screenplay is pure Hollywood, and the clunky, obvious manner in which it deals with the story's themes is often excruciating. It's not enough for us to pick up on the religious imagery for ourselves, someone has to say to Randy, "You look just like that guy, from The Passion of the Christ"; and if Randy's earlier quote about being a piece of meat wasn't blunt enough, he later underlines it by pushing his finger into a bacon slicer. The whole film is riddled with cheesy, trite dialogue, never more so than during the underwhelming scenes between Randy and his estranged daughter (a shrill Evan Rachel Wood), which is a subplot the film doesn't need, and which could have easily been jettisoned without making the slightest difference to the picture's emotional wallop. There's already enough pathos in Randy's story as it is, the film doesn't need to strain for tears in such a hackneyed fashion.

After all, it's hard not to be moved by this character – an essentially decent man forced to batter his ageing body to earn a crust, unable to establish a meaningful connection with anyone outside of his sport – and when Randy suffers a heart attack halfway through the film, he looks like a man staring into a deep void. What does the future hold for a wrestler who can't wrestle anymore? In his despair, he tries to reach out to Marisa Tomei's Cassidy, a stripper who enjoys Randy's companionship but who insists on maintaining strict boundaries, and there's a genuine chemistry between these two actors that lights up the film. Aronofsky continually tries to draw unsubtle parallels between the pair – they're performers who use their bodies to create a fantasy for the audience, they have fake public personas, they're trying to fight the ravages of time (although I'd argue that Tomei looks more radiant with every passing year) – but Rourke and Tomei manage to slip out of their boxes to become living, breathing people. It's a shame the film can't find a way to do something more interesting with them, though. The Wrestler falls into a predictable formula as it approaches its climax, and one can almost begin to anticipate the story beats right on cue (I groaned inwardly as Cassidy fled the stage for Randy's all-or-nothing final bout).

For all of the violence in The Wrestler, for all of the harsh truth and tears shed, my favourite scene in the whole film occurs in the unlikely surroundings of a deli meat counter, behind which Randy reluctantly stands and takes orders. Gradually, he begins to warm to his role, and he strikes up some banter with the bemused customers as he serves them slices of ham. The scene is a standout because it has a freshness and vitality that is absent from most of the film, and the way Rourke interacts with the real people he encounters is a joy. In these scenes, the actor's unmistakable charisma shines through, and there's something deeply touching about this small moment when he seems to have found a role away from the ring that he can similarly make his own. We know it can't last, of course, but we really want him to make it work, and that's why we stay with The Ram all the way to the bitter end, as he prepares to take a final leap from life's top rope, knowing it could be his last.