In Rod Serling’s classic teleplay Requiem for a Heavyweight, the hero was an aging, punch-drunk boxer who had to choose between leaving the ring and suffering the indignity of becoming — gasp — a pro wrestler. In The Wrestler, the hero is an aging pro wrestler who just wants to stick with it, dignity be damned.
Gone is the notion of the gentleman athlete who’ll do anything except throw a fight. Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) doesn’t mind the fixed battles, the silly costumes, the flimsy props, or the authentic pain. He doesn’t mind that his face looks like it’s been through a meat tenderizer, or that he spends hours in hair and tanning salons to achieve that elusive leathery-Viking allure. For him, as for a rock star, it’s all about feeling the roar of the crowd and the thudding metal beats in the arena. Once that high is gone, there’s not a lot left.
Director Darren Aronofsky has already made his own “requiem” movie — Requiem for a Dream. But while Dream is a hallucinogenic display of technical virtuosity, The Wrestler, essentially a requiem for a performer, is all about the acting.
Aronofsky presents Randy’s life in rough-edged, almost pseudo-documentary fashion. As the camera follows him — literally — through the trailer park where he lives and then into the community centers and American Legion halls where he fights now, 20 years past his peak, we seem to spy on him. We see the trick he uses to make himself bleed in the ring, and the old snapshot where he’s scrawled the last known phone number of his estranged daughter. When he courts a sharp-tongued stripper (Marisa Tomei), we see both his genuine warmth and his gift for bad timing. Though Randy’s vocation is violent, his affection for fans and fellow wrestlers is genuine, too. When he works behind a deli counter to make ends meet, he builds a rapport with customers, teetering on the line between “personable” and “inappropriate.” In short, he feels real.
Yet, viewed as a whole, the film is as clichéd as any sports melodrama. There’s never any suspense about whether Randy will reach out to his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), or whether he’ll make it to the big rematch with his one-time arch-rival, “The Ayatollah” (Ernest Miller). Robert D. Siegel’s script plays by the book: When Tomei tells Rourke he has the same hair as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, you just know there’s going to be a scene where he’s metaphorically crucified. And he is.
But again, it’s all about the acting — if what Rourke is doing is acting. A boxer before and after he was a movie sex symbol, he’s seen his share of highs and lows. When Randy and the stripper reminisce about the ’80s and express their distaste for the decade of Kurt Cobain, it’s hard not to be reminded that flops and erratic behavior torpedoed Rourke’s Hollywood career in 1990-91.
But despite all the public antics and the bloating, the actor’s still recognizable in a way that adds to the poignancy of this has-been story. Way back in 1982, Pauline Kael wrote about him (in a review of Diner): “With luck, Rourke could become a major actor: he has an edge and magnetism, and a sweet, pure smile that surprises you. He seems to be acting to you, and to no one else.”
The edge is dulled and the magnetism pretty much gone. The “sweet, pure smile” still makes an occasional, now even more surprising appearance. But, most importantly, when Aronofsky’s camera stops following him and gets in his face, Rourke still has that strange intimacy with the viewer. His character’s not a noble figure like Serling’s boxer — and, for obvious reasons, nothing much is riding on the results of his rematch. But when he begs his daughter for forgiveness, he gives us a taste of real desperation — and the determination of a screwed-up survivor.