- Mid-flight crisis: Randy The Ram (Mickey Rourke)
The opening-credits sequence of Darren Aronofsky's drama The Wrestler illustrate that the 1980s were good to Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke). The professional wrestler was a star -- a macho good guy with a mane of tousled blond hair. But he peaked in 1989 -- the year of his much-hyped bout with the race-baiting heel, The Ayatollah.
Now, 20 years later, things aren't so fabulous.
Randy's still performing, but in half-filled school gyms and union halls. His opponents are other has-beens, never-made-its and hopeful young bucks. There's no dressing room, and the payout can be counted in 10s and 20s. His body is held together literally with duct tape and illegally procured pharmaceuticals; he wears a hearing aid and moves with the lumbering gait of a man twice his age.
But this low-rent circuit maintains its own fragile dignity, and here, at least, Randy is a respected elder. Among his few perks, headliner Randy has the choice of which series of moves and holds will make up the match.
Aronofsky's previous films include the head-scratching Pi, the addiction spectacle Requiem for a Dream and the genre-busting love-epic The Fountain. Here, the writer-director noted for his idiosyncratic if small canon delivers a surprisingly straightforward work, both in content and form.
In some respects, you've seen this indie film before: It's a small-scale character study of a down-and-outer, filmed with the intimacy and relaxed pace of a documentary, and marked by hand-held cameras and earnest performances, including one by a washed-up actor looking for mid-life credibility.
These are familiar characters: Randy, the fallen prince who yearns, if not for the spotlight again, then at least the glow of redemption; Cassidy, the brittle stripper with the heart of gold (portrayed by Marisa Tomei); and the seemingly unattainable prize, in this case, Randy's long-estranged college-age daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), who represents normality.
The Wrestler does effectively convey the dismal milieu of low-rung, fluorescent-lit pro wrestling. Such shows may be a goof to attend for a couple bucks; less so if you're the performer working this circuit every weekend.
The outcome of wrestling matches may be predetermined and the various moves choreographed, but there is nothing fake about the physicality -- or the toll it takes. (Among all entertainers, professional wrestlers seem to fare the worst after they leave the spotlight.) And when there are no TV censors or delicate sensibilities, "red means green." Randy and a contender named Necro engage in a particularly brutal blood match, complete with barbed wire, shattered glass and a staple-gun. The tiny crowd roars its approval.
The Wrestler is a showcase for Rourke, and the meta-narrative is the actor's own career trajectory. A certifiable star of the 1980s (the breakout actor of 1982's Diner, then seen in a variety of sexy thrillers), Rourke seemingly went off the rails by the decade's end, taking on bizarre idiosyncrasies of "method acting." (At one point, he became a boxer.) Add a troubled personal life, the loss of his good looks, and Rourke became a half-forgotten actor, tut-tutted over in the occasional character role.
Rourke plays Randy with an engaging, sympathetic melancholy, just barely buoyed by brio. Ever the method actor, he put on weight and took plenty of ring hits -- he looks appropriately awful. Often, I was aware of watching Rourke play Randy, but the conflating of the Rourke-Randy storylines works in this case: These are both damaged men, crawling out of self-created holes aiming toward the light.
Trapped amid the vapors of his long-ago glory, Randy's attempts to go straight -- in essence, to retire -- are met with unpredictable results. In the ring, there are accepted trade-offs for giving his all, and Randy The Ram always wins. As dismal and brutal as it looks to outsiders, this world is his comfort. "The only place I get hurt is out there," he muses, referring to his life beyond the turnbuckles.
One night in the strip club, Cassidy, noting the blood seeping from Randy's battered forehead, jokingly compares him to The Passion of the Christ. It's an offhanded joke that a fan of the popular movie might make, but here Aronofsky tips his hand to Randy's existential dilemma: What -- or who -- does his suffering, both his emotional pain and unrelenting physical abuse, serve? It may be as inconsequential as our fleeting entertainment, or as Cassidy adds, laughing: "You're the sacrificial Ram."
Starts Fri., Jan. 23.