You don't need to be a fan of wrestling or hair metal to enjoy The Wrestler -- director Darren Aronofsky's poignant glimpse into the life of an aging, broken brawler grappling with failing health and memories of fame long after his glory days have dissipated -- just great acting and assured storytelling. A variation on the Requiem for a Heavyweight model, only set in a different ring, the emotionally resonant drama finds former professional boxer Mickey Rourke lacing up his boots and following in the footsteps of Anthony Quinn and Jack Palance to remarkable effect, and feels custom-suited for its hard-living headliner. Hardcore wrestling aficionados will be happy to see a film that deals honestly with the darker side of a sport that takes a heavy physical toll even when the moves are orchestrated, and film lovers will be rooting for Rourke thanks to his complex portrayal of a former god among men forced to confront his own mortality.
Back in the late '80s, professional wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson was headlining matches all across the country. He had his own action figure, and there was even a Nintendo game featuring his signature move -- the devastating "Ram Jam." But time hasn't been kind to the performer who sacrificed his body in the name of entertainment, and these days, when Randy isn't popping pills to stay in shape and numb his pain, he travels New Jersey performing in high school gymnasiums and community centers. The crowds may not be as large or as loud as they used to be, but as long as Randy can hear their roar as he steps into the ring, he feels fulfilled. Then, after a particularly intense match, Randy suffers a massive heart attack. Informed by his doctor that he could possibly die should he continue to wrestle, Randy reluctantly retires from the ring. In order to make ends meet, Randy picks up some weekend hours at the local grocery-store deli, doing his best to maintain a positive attitude behind the counter as he attempts to convince local stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) to settle down with him and start a life together. But Cassidy isn't quite sure about blurring the line between her personal and professional lives, and while she does her best to walk that fine line, Randy decides that it's finally time to reconnect with the daughter he once left behind. How will his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), respond to seeing the father who once forsook her in favor of the spotlight? Will Randy's earnest admission of the sins of his past be enough to convince her that he's sincere in his attempts to make amends for his previous transgressions, or did his chance to be a good father pass when he placed more emphasis on beating his former archrival "The Ayatollah" (Ernest Miller) than teaching Stephanie how to ride a bike? As the 20-year anniversary of Randy's landmark match with The Ayatollah draws near, the prospect of a rematch is broached, and the former wrestling superstar wonders what it would be like to hear the crowd chant his name one last time.
Seldom has a film role seemed more tailor-made for such a talented star, and from the moment The Ram's face is first revealed, there's little doubt that Rourke inhabits the character entirely: he's got the body to make his character entirely believable, and the emotional range to keep us compelled both in and out of the ring. Even when it becomes obvious that Randy hasn't been the best father, we want to see him succeed in reconnecting with his estranged daughter. His quietly desperate speech to her as the pair sits together by the New Jersey shoreline is the heart of the film, and the way Rourke handles the monologue reminds us of just what an amazing actor he can truly be when portraying such a unique and multidimensional character. And while the scenes in which his character interacts with other wrestlers and fans are sure to strike a chord with the Vince McMahon set, it's the emotional weight of the more intimate scenes that gives The Wrestler the universal appeal of any great drama. As we begin to realize that Randy's greatest adversary isn't the opponent threatening to gouge out his eyes and body-slam him into oblivion, but the man staring back at him from behind the mirror, the character's growing vulnerability allows not only Rourke the opportunity to shine, but co-stars Tomei and Wood as well.
Wisely, director Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel pepper The Wrestler with some memorable moments of levity that help the film avoid falling into the grim histrionics that left Requiem for a Dream viewers feeling battered and bruised. It's that creative decision, along with some inspired editing choices, that effectively draws the viewer ever deeper into the story while giving us more insight into The Ram's resilient nature than ten pages of melodramatic dialogue ever could. Watching Randy go from busting skulls in the ring to contending with his patronizing manager at the deli paints his inner conflict in a way that is wryly humorous yet acutely piercing, and the skillful use of sound as he swallows his pride and steps behind the counter for the very first time portrays his faded dreams and greatest fears in a way that manages to be playfully ironic without becoming condescending. Likewise, the decision to shoot the film primarily with handheld cameras skillfully subverts the glossy look of the WWE in the wrestling scenes, and instills the emotional scenes with an affecting sense of intimacy that truly resonates. The soundtrack is fully loaded with recognizable hard rock hits from the '80s that serve well to highlight the passage of time, and when Randy climbs the ropes to perform his signature move during the final match, Aronofsky and cinematographer Maryse Alberti present the defining moment with an iconic, low-angle shot so heroic that it could have just as well been captured back when The Ram was idolized by wrestling fans everywhere. It's an eerie yet beautiful image in which all of Randy's personal failures suddenly disappear under the spotlight, and his greatest strengths as both a performer and an athlete finally get the opportunity to shine untarnished.
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