Everybody loves a comeback. It's one of the enduring myths of movies and sports -- the redemptive second act, the chance to get things right, the do-over. It's a near necessity in any boxing movie (or kung fu movie, or sports movie) -- the hero is on the ropes, beaten, but then taps some hidden reserve of strength and determination to (surprise!) triumph.
We like those resurrection stories when they happen to actors too. They offer some kind of redemption both for fallen stars, and for the public that watched them fall with eager, tabloid-fueled interest. Case in point: Mickey Rourke, whose movie career peaked some time in the late 80s (although he has worked steadily since then). The telltale signs of Rourke's own hard living are all over his battered, lumpy face in The Wrestler -- it forms an authentic backstory for his character, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a hard living, has-been pro wrestler (whose career peaked some time in the 80s), now fallen on hard times.
Randy, pumped up on steroids, propped up on painkillers, continues to wrestle in a less glamorous, far less lucrative circuit. He's a former superstar on his way down, battling young wrestlers on their way up. There are early scenes in The Wrestler that marvelously reveal the combination of performance and reality in pro wrestling. Backstage, the wrestlers form a warm, congenial, brotherhood of men who practice and choreograph their upcoming matches before beating each other up for show in the ring. The beating up part, however staged it is, involves real blood and bruises, and real pain (there's a particularly gruesome match involving barbed wire, broken glass and a staple gun). The authenticity of the performance is perhaps the reason audiences take so seriously a sport everybody knows to be fake. Authentic fakery is also a necessity in movies, isn't it? And Rourke's performance is terrific, complex, heartbreaking, and authentic -- revealing all the internal and external pain that goes along with being "The Ram," and with being a guy who took more care with his public image than with his personal life.
Randy's self-mutilation in the ring is followed by effortful physical maintenance of his broken down body -- the hair, the fake tan, the enhanced muscles. Very little about his public image is real, and for Randy, now a weekend warrior who makes ends meet with a job in a supermarket, reliving some tiny portion of his former glory is disproportionately costly to body, soul, and wallet.
Written by Robert D. Siegel, The Wrestler trades in the kind of sweet sentimentality and hokiness one expects from a tale of redemption. There are familiar elements in The Wrestler, in Randy's hopes for a big comeback rematch with his "arch-enemy" The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller), in his effort to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), and to connect with a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, who, unlike Rourke, has obviously taken good care of herself through the ups and downs of her career). Cassidy, like Randy, is an aging performer -- if her job is less likely to get her bashed with a chair, it's every bit as difficult, and also requires her to convince her audience that she feels something she doesn't. Randy has to pretend to hate his opponents; Cassidy pretends she loves her customers. It might be Randy is one of those customers -- is it possible that the consummate performer doesn't know an act when he sees one?
The sentimentality of the story is tempered with weariness and doom, and by a focus on the bleak, behind-the-scenes realities of Randy's life. Randy's a gentle giant, graceful in the ring but clumsy in real life, who can't seem to keep from destroying everything around him, and most of all himself. He's not very smart, and he's not exactly a good guy, but he works so hard at being something better than he is that it's impossible not to root for him, and hope he can succeed. He's beaten down and on the ropes -- can he pull off a comeback?
Director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) follows Randy around with a handheld camera, using grainy film stock, through a grubby, grim New Jersey of parking lots, trailer parks and dollar stores, strip clubs and impromptu wrestling arenas. The whole movie has a weary, bleak, beleaguered look to it, and the mood is consistently downbeat instead of falsely hopeful or triumphant. Aronofsky manages, for the most part, to push through the phony stuff in The Wrestler to find a hard, battered reality.