HALT! Spoilers inside. Proceed at your own risk.
I need to beg your indulgence for what I’m about to declare: Mickey Rourke is hot in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. I know: “But look at him! Ew!” Ew indeed. I thought that as well, initially. But don’t allow your own delicate sensibilities to keep you from experiencing the comeback of Mickey Rourke. Hot is the least of what he is in this role. (Alright, perhaps I’m seeing through the fog of admiration for his work.) His acting is thoughtful and sincere, and what you’ve heard is not just hype. Sound the alarm, folks: the critics are right.
We can gather the gist: journey towards the last big hurrah of a washed-up wrestler. Not too original a concept, but the telling is fresh and interesting. The single, defining feature of the film is the pursuing camera. When we meet Randy “The Ram” Robinson, it is just after we have been introduced - through a collage of newspaper clippings - to his former glory days. The camera sneaks up on him, building the anticipation of what a former celebrity wrestler might look like. When we are finally allowed to see his face, there is no unveiling or ceremony; this is the point. We are simply and unceremoniously brought around to the front: this is what he looks like; this is all there is.
Throughout the film, Aronofsky often returns to this camera perspective. The camera might be a fan seeking an autograph, so that the rear camera shot casts Robinson as the superstar he ought to be (but isn’t) as we watch from behind the long, bleached-blonde hair and the impressive back and shoulders. But we also get the sense that the perspective of the camera is that of Robinson too: shy but dogged in the practice of his craft. Robinson isn’t looking for status; he is simply looking to continue doing what he has always loved, and what is now all he knows.
There is also little history of the protagonist. We are being told a story of ‘ending up’, and are being given a clinical, matter-of-fact look at the here and now of a failed life. All we know is that Randy was born Robin Ramzinski, a name he finds odious and refuses to be associated with, for reasons not made explicit but about which we can speculate. We must also speculate about the details of his fractured relationship with his daughter. The lesson is that there is no reliving of the past: where we are is where we are, and that is the reality we must live.
Mickey Rourke is this movie. Marisa Tomei is a bit of her overwrought, “My Cousin Vinny” character and little more. But she does the job adequately as the woman that Randy yearns to be with. Not because she is someone particularly special, but because she is someone, and he is desperately lonely. His daughter Stephanie, played by Evan Rachel Wood, is another someone to whom the wrestler turns in a final attempt to discover a life beyond wrestling. Wood gives a creditable performance as his angry and abandoned but charitable daughter who is willing to give him another chance, until he becomes sidetracked and ruins his one last opportunity.
But Mickey Rourke is all that matters in this film. The unlikely, impeccable manners from this washed-up monster of a man; the unreserved vulnerability as he reaches out to find love or – failing that – just company; the single-mindedness with which he pursues his sport, even though both he and it (at least on the scale on which he practices) seem marginal and irrelevant: these are what make him an endearing and heartbreaking figure. And it is this figure that carries the film right through to its inevitable, tragic conclusion.
Perhaps the success of the film rests in the fact that it feels like the story of Mickey Rourke himself. The actor has had a tempestuous affair with both Hollywood and the sport of boxing. When Randy, rejected by his love interest and his daughter, returns to what would be his final, fatal turn in the ring, he declares – defeated – that wrestling is the only thing that treats him with kindness. Despite the torn bicep, bypass surgery and ruined back, wrestling is the thing that has caused him the least injury. We know that Rourke, too, has been pulled in two directions: acting and boxing. He is, in fact, a boxer who studied acting, breaking through to play an arsonist in the 1981 uncomfortable erotic thriller Body Heat, and then the following year as the self-conscious, slow-moving Boogie in Diner. His petulant, sensitive bad-boy affectations earned him lots of attention, and he went on to play similar characters in several films including the bizarre and disturbing Nine 1/2 Weeks. After his appearance in the 1991 Harley Davidson and The Marlboro Man, Rourke quit acting and resumed his professional boxing career, reportedly injured by the fact that, like The Wrestler’s Randy in his relationships, he had not been given a fair chance to prove himself on the strength of his deeds (his work in Hollywood). And like Randy, he chooses the physical punishment over the emotional: he suffered broken cheekbones, nose, toes and ribs, which prompted the number of surgeries responsible for his monstrous aspect today. But the punishment was not over for Rourke, as he returned to acting in 1995. And while, as the tabloids showed, he took a few more psychological beatings for Hollywood’s failure to appreciate his nuanced (rather than Brad Pitt-like, obvious) approach to acting, we have at last been brought to this point, and to a simple, well-executed title role in a well-told story, which is what we imagine Mickey Rourke was after all along.