Rating: Rated MA 15+ (strong violence, drug use and sex scene; coarse language)
Mickey Rourke is certain to be in Oscar contention for his outstanding performance in Darren Aronofsky’s superior drama about a washed-up professional wrestler struggling to come to terms with a body that can no longer execute the moves and the void in his personal life outside the ring.
I have zero interest in boxing/wrestling, but I was completely engrossed in this compassionate, vibrant study of a simple, flawed but decent human being who is bereft of the skills and intelligence to make anything of his life. Rourke, whose own career has been in the wilderness of late, completely immerses himself in the role of Randy Robinson. Twenty years ago he was a top professional mat man dubbed “The Ram”, but now he earns a meagre living as a part-time shelf-stacker at a New Jersey supermarket and still turns out at weekends to entertain meagre audiences at amateur wrestling bouts in community halls.
A health crisis threatens Randy’s rough and tumble existence and, realising that he is “an old, broken-down piece of meat, and alone”, he attempts to take stock. His main concern is to effect a reconciliation with Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), the daughter he has all but ignored. His fumbling efforts to reclaim the affection of the embittered teenager are achingly touching. So are his attempts to develop his friendship with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a dancer at a strip club, into something more meaningful. But she, a realist when it comes to fantasies, knows that “the club and the real world don’t mix”.
That’s about all there is to the plot, but the way it is handled puts The Wrestler up with the best film drama. In all three key areas of writing (Robert Siegel), direction and acting it is a classy product, and the ring of truth resounds in every scene.
Director Aronofsky captures brilliantly the seedy world of wrestling and the backstage camaraderie of its tattoed denizens as they meet beforehand to plot their moves and applaud each other afterwards for putting on a good show. He shows Randy’s obsession with grooming, visiting a beauty parlour for peroxide on his lank locks and a spell in the solarium.
He shows, too, the lengths to which the wrestlers go to put on show for the baying fans. Randy conceals a blade in his strapping so he can slice into his forehead to make a bout look more authentic. Another wrestler draws blood by using barbed wire. A staple gun is another useful accessory. These sequences are not for the squeamish perhaps, but within the context of how these men need to gratify the public appetite for gore, they are not gratuitous. (You will look in vain among the credits for the disclaimer “No humans were harmed in the making of this film”.)
There are some lovely touches along the way. I particularly liked the sad little scene when Randy and a handful of colleagues set up a meet-and-greet session with the fans to sell photos and autographs and videotapes of their glory days. And the sequence in which Randy is put to work behind the deli counter at the supermarket and has to deal with the public is genuinely funny and deftly handled.
Some people will inevitably draw a comparison with Stallone’s Rocky films, but The Wrestler is by no means a sugar-coated, stereotypical, triumph-over adversity melodrama. Rather, it is a poignant character study of a man whose sense of worth flourishes only within the square ring.
Hopscotch Out January 15
Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.