*The Wrestler (R)
Cinemark 16, Kimball's Twin Peak
"The '90s fucking sucked," observes Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) at one point in The Wrestler. He's referring specifically to the music how Kurt Cobain killed the era of hair-metal but it's obvious he's also referring to his own life.
A star of big-time professional wrestling in the 1980s, Robinson still clings to the time when he was cheered by thousands. He may drive a beat-up truck, but he has his own action figure on the dashboard. He may live in a trailer that's occasionally padlocked when he can't pay his rent, but he has a vintage wrestling video game in that trailer featuring himself.
Much has been made of Rourke's performance, which has been showered with year-end awards. But it's a mistake to suggest that The Wrestler is all about the fascination of watching Rourke apply his wrecked face and ripped body to this character. As good as he is, this is more than a performance showpiece. The Wrestler is one of the most unexpectedly heartbreaking film dramas in a long time and the idea that it's even remotely an underdog sports movie like Rocky is mind-bogglingly wrong.
Screenwriter Robert Siegel does set up his story with a feint in that direction. Director Darren Aronofsky dives deep into the culture of wrestling, including pre-fight "script" preparation, hair-dyeing, tanning beds and steroids. Then, after one particularly brutal match, Randy suffers a heart attack and is forced to retire rather than risk his life. But on the horizon is a rematch with "The Ayatollah." Will he recover in time for another shot at the big time?
That's the obvious question but it's also the wrong question. The Wrestler observes Randy as he tries to make sense of life outside the ring, whether it's finding work in a supermarket deli, posing for pictures at memorabilia shows, or attempting to reconcile with his angry, estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). It soon becomes obvious that Randy has no idea how to live that kind of life. As he prepares to sling potato salad with the distant chants of an audience in his head Randy becomes a case-study in self-destructive single-mindedness.
It would have been easy for Rourke to play Randy as an embittered brute, but he chooses to portray machismo with more subtlety. While there's no way to separate Rourke's appearance from the role time itself appears to have beaten the crap out of him he actually plays against his looks with both a gentle wistfulness and an eagerness to please. Rourke's nearly matched by Wood, who gets one of the year's true lump-in-the-throat moments as Stephanie chases a father-daughter bond denied to her for years. And Marisa Tomei bares more than her body as Pam, a stripper whose own struggle with being past her prime echoes Randy's.
There is, however, a significant difference between how Pam and Randy ultimately deal with the idea of moving on. Some critics have suggested that there's something triumphant about The Wrestler's climactic scenes and the final shot in particular which feels like a catastrophic misreading. Anchored by Rourke's towering performance, Siegel and Aronofsky have put together a wonderfully sad, particularly American tragedy: a look at what happens to someone who only understands himself in the context of a celebrity that has passed him by.