The Wrestler wins Venice. Next stop: Toronto
Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler won't screen publicly here in Toronto until Sunday evening, and won't be shown to the press until Monday afternoon. (In its latest concession to Hollywood, the festival has this year decided to hold press screenings for many high-profile movies only after those films' first public screenings — an obvious effort to forestall potentially damaging reviews.) But I had the chance to see Aronofsky's film earlier this summer during the selection screenings for the New York Film Festival (where it will be the closing-night gala on October 12) and again last week in L.A., in a finished version that included the original song Bruce Springsteen has written for the end credits. And, now that The Wrestler has taken the Golden Lion for best film at the just-concluded Venice Film Festival, it seems fair game for discussion, so here goes.
I'd begin by saying that The Wrestler is the best wrestling movie in memory, but what, really, is the competition: Hulk Hogan in 1989's No Holds Barred? Besides, Aronofsky's film is no more just about wrestling than There Will Be Blood (the last American movie about which I felt this much enthusiasm) was a user's guide to oil drilling. Or, on second thought, maybe The Wrestler is all about wrestling — provided you take that to mean both the sport itself as well as what goes on outside the colored ropes, when the conquering hero returns to his dressing room and begins to grapple with those slippery questions of identity, self-worth and mortality that weigh heavy upon all men's souls.
The man in this particular equation is Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a pro wrestler two decades on from his title-card days, now playing for fanboy crowds in banquet halls and school auditoriums for barely enough money to pay his trailer-park rent. A hulking mass of steroidal muscle and frosted hair extensions, his body a palimpsest of scars from a lifetime of folding chairs to the back and plate-glass windows to the skull, The Ram seems to sense that his days are numbered even before a near-fatal heart attack lands him in the ER. But what, at the end of the day, is a wrestler without his ring? Does he, perchance, cease to exist?
The Wrestler is Randy Robinson's odyssey to get to the bottom of that nagging dilemma, as he tries to patch things up with his estranged teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and turns on the charm for a world-weary stripper (an excellent Marisa Tomei) who wonders if she too has squandered her last hope for a normal-type life. And then there's the supermarket deli counter — the one where Robinson finds himself sidelined after his heart surgery. It's there that Aronofsky stages one of the movie's truly brilliant scenes, as The Ram suits up in apron and hair net to meet a less-than-adoring public. (“A bit less potato salad, please.” “No, a little bit more.”) Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the soundtrack segues from the whir of industrial fans and refrigerators to the roar of an arena crowd — the one Robinson has never stopped hearing inside his own head. Make no mistake: The Ram is not long for the world of food service.
I could go on — indeed, I've written at length about The Wrestler (which, as of this moment, is still awaiting a U.S. distribution deal) for the new issue of Cinema Scope magazine, the contents of which should go live on the CS website sometime next week. For now, suffice it to say that the movie is a triumph from start to finish, especially for Rourke, but also for Aronofsky, whose career seemed to be drifting uncertainly through the outer reaches of the galaxy after the calamitous bit of new-agey mysticism known as The Fountain. That was a very hard movie to take seriously, where even a snowflake came burdened with several tons of symbolic significance. But none of Aronofsky's first three features — even Requiem for a Dream, of which I thought highly — were less than agonized affairs, in which one felt this undeniably gifted filmmaker straining to wow us with his Kubrickian brilliance. The Wrestler is, by contrast, the most lucid, effortless film Aronofsky has ever made, and also the saddest, the funniest, the most humane.
As for Rourke, he doesn't just play this role — he lives it, moment by moment, to one's consistent astonishment. Those newspaper and magazine clippings that pass by underneath the opening credits, heralding The Ram as the next great thing in pro wrestling? Those could just as soon be the myriad interviews and profiles of Rourke himself that proliferated in the 1980s — starting with his breakout supporting roles in Body Heat, Diner and Rumble Fish and continuing through his tour-de-force as Charles Bukowski's alter-ego in Barfly. In those days, everyone thought this electrifying young actor was certain to be the next Brando. Then, like The Ram, Rourke had his own years in the desert, during which he embarked on a professional boxing career, spent too much time in tanning salons and starring in soft-core sex romps, and finally landed in direct-to-video Siberia. Until, at the start of the decade, Rourke began to re-emerge: stunning as the father of a missing girl in a three-minute scene from Sean Penn's The Pledge and as a transvestite prison inmate in Steve Buscemi's Animal Factory; one of the rogue's gallery in Bob Dylan's Masked and Anonymous; and handily stealing the show as the disfigured vigilante, Marv, in Sin City. Now, at 52, he has given the kind of performance that caps, redefines and reinvents careers, inhabiting a character at the end of his tether with all the lived-in authority of someone who has known what it's like to be there. Once upon a time, Mickey Rourke coulda been a contender for Heavyweight Acting Champion of the World. With The Wrestler, that title is once again his to lose.