The Long, Hard Road to Redemption
By: Tom Bevis
Starring: Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei
Cat’s out of the bag: wrestling is fake. Now that you’re over that shock, let me tell you a bit about the most surprising film of the year. Mickey Rourke plays an aging wrestler named Randy “The Ram” Robinson who saw his glory days in the 1980’s and is now twenty years past his prime and struggling to maintain his minimal existence. He performs at semi-pro wrestling events on weekends and works part-time at a local grocery during the week. Once his age catches up with him and he’s told he can’t wrestle any more, he realizes he has to get his life – his real life, which he’s been unable to discern from his stage life – back into order. This includes getting a real job, making amends with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and getting to know his only friend and love-interest, a dancer at a local strip bar (Marisa Tomei).
I’m going to say it now. Regardless of what the Academy may say, The Wrestler is the best film of the year. Mickey Rourke is the best actor of the year. It won’t win either awards because there are going to be other, more popular pictures contending for best picture and the Academy loves politics in film, and that guarantees the best actor award to either Milk’s Sean Penn or Frost/Nixon’s Frank Langella. And this is a dirty shame because this film deeply deserves both awards.
To hear such things coming from me may surprise some of you. I never thought much of Requiem for a Dream except that it was an over-ambitious art house picture, I never bothered with Pi, and I think we can all agree that The Fountain was just awful (except for the five or so of you who decided to like that film). So, I walked in with absolutely no enthusiasm to see this film, but I was thoroughly blown away by the honesty and authenticity of the film, both in its performances and its portrayal of real life (Aronofsky himself told us that they screened this film to actual burnt-out wrestlers, several of whom collapsed into tears by the sad conclusion, admitting that he hit the proverbial nail on the head).
Mickey Rourke, now late in his fifties, pumped on about 35 pounds to play the role, performed all of his stunts – with the exception of one (which includes a large sheet of plate glass). He incorporated much of his own mannerisms and characteristics into his portrayal of Robinson, making the character undeniably and inseparably his own. There are similarly overwhelming performances by Rourke’s supporting cast: Tomei is entirely believable as an aging woman trying to maintain sex appeal (for Rourke and Tomei, their roles are nearly autobiographical) and Wood plays a stuck-up twenty-something.
The screenplay is written with beautiful pacing, flowing nicely as we’re introduced to the character, the events in his life are stacked up for us, gathering speed as he makes each mistake and begins to spin out of control until he reaches the final climax in something that feels like crushing from sixty into a brick wall and a cold zero. The cinematography compliments this pacing of script, as the camera begins unsteady as we’re introduced to a man at rock bottom, straightens out as he smoothes things out with his daughter and crush, only to become shaky and erratic as he begins to crash out.
The production of the film itself seems too incredible to believe, after having been promised a huge budget when rumors of Nicholas Cage playing Robinson. Eventually, someone realized the idea of Cage playing a semi-pro wrestler was a joke and the budget was withdrawn, leaving director Aronofsky with a mere six million. The crew was forced to crash real wrestling events to shoot scenes because they couldn’t afford extras or booking arenas, and the supporting cast of wrestlers are – you got it – real wrestlers.
This film has everything for it. Production that went against all odds to build a magnificent film, an entirely able cast giving entirely believable performances, skillful scriptwriting and camera work and incredible resourcefulness. The one thing, however, that stops this film from getting a perfect score here is a seemingly small script flaw. The story deals almost entirely with sex roles, as Robinson wonders what it is to be a man, whether it’s maintaining the status quo or rebuilding the relationships in his life. Similarly, Tomei’s character begins to feel the sting of age on her profession and wonders what it would take for her to maintain her womanhood.
Despite this apparent connection, Aronofsky never takes the time to point this connection out and ponder on questions such as how the two are alike in their profession, how they each deal with their age, and how can come to rely on one another to make amends. He never treats Tomei as Rourke’s opposite and ergo equal, but instead insists that she’s merely a tool of the plot.
All-in-all, the film is stunning and emotional. Wrestling fans beware, as the picture goes into near exhaustive detail as to how the industry fakes its many stunts and thrills. If you can handle this, you’ll be in for a treat, though. And if anything else, you get to see Marisa Tomei in the nude.