A few years ago in Sin City, it was said that Mickey Rourke’s character, Marv, had “the rotten luck of being born in the wrong century,” that he would be right at home “in a Roman arena, taking his sword to other gladiators like him.” Underneath the makeup and prosthetics, perhaps, it was just as true for Rourke as it was for Marv.
In The Wrestler, the Coliseum has morphed into a squared circle, and Rourke looks perfectly at home on the canvas even as he takes folding chairs to the head. He plays Randy the Ram, an aging ’80s wrestling superstar still clinging to the last, lingering particles of limelight in small, untelevised wrestling shows.
After a heart attack forces him to retire, Randy flounders around aimlessly, unsure of how his life should commence now. He picks up extra work at the supermarket deli counter, the only suitable retirement home for the self-identified “old, broken-down piece of meat,” to fill the time. Sensing his loneliness, a stripper friend, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), suggests he try bonding with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he barely knows.
Pro wrestling is not an easy subject to take seriously, but director Darren Aronofsky displays it well as a spellbinding muscle ballet, sweaty and bloody, but graceful and addictive all the same. He avoids the ubiquitous camp elements associated with the “sport,” instead focusing on the human elements within the dressing room where these mountains of men are just as fragile and soft as everyone else.
But the rousing comeback of Mickey Rourke is what the film is about, if you listen to common theory. And while that’s mostly true, that conversation unfortunately omits Tomei, who, like Rourke, is rising from the ashes of a career never quite fulfilled after the promise of My Cousin Vinny.
To that point, she gives an absolutely sterling performance here, baring all by night as Cassidy, a stripper at the end of her career, and by day as Pam, the mother of a 9-year-old boy looking for a new life. The dichotomy mandated by her job mirrors the Ram’s in some ways; both are trying to figure out which life is more important. The film gives Tomei some of the heaviest lifting as Randy gradually makes his way through Cassidy’s barrier and into Pam’s life.
Aronofsky, too, had some knocks to recover from after The Fountain. He elevates the film above script level with the small touches of genius that are all but expected of him now, a well that seemed to have run dry.
His usual bag of camera and editing tricks is left backstage, but Aronofsky allows for one soulful flourish: a crushing, one-take Steadicam shot as Randy walks from the back of the supermarket into his new life behind the deli counter. The whirring purrs of refrigerator motors are his only cheers on this new runway, and Randy even fools himself with it for a moment before the reality sinks in that he’s traded the sharp spotlight for flat fluorescents. To complete that sobering splash of cold water, his nametag doesn’t read “The Ram” or even “Randy,” but his given, decidedly unexciting name: “Robin.”