The WrestlerDirected by Darren AronofskyStarring Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel WoodRated R*8.5*Goes well with: The Queen, Barfly, Pi
Let's get one thing out of the way: The scuttlebutt is true—Mickey Rourke delivers a tremendous, Oscar-caliber performance in The Wrestler that will probably pit him against Sean Penn's portrayal of Harvey Milk for the Best Actor Award. Yes, he really is that good.
Of course, it's hard not to notice the parallels between Rourke's own life and his character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed-up wrestler and a faded star on the high-school gym circuit, unable to make a living doing anything else. In the 1980s, Rourke was one of his generation's best actors, but he ditched the movies to try to make it as a pro boxer. When he discovered he needed Hollywood, it no longer needed him. Even director Darren Aronofsky was initially skeptical.
“It's such a hard character to fill,” Aronofsky tells CityBeat. “Not only do you need that great emotional range, but we also needed someone who could pull off the physicality. I remember doubting Mickey could do it; I didn't remember him as being a huge dude, but I found out his father had been a bodybuilder. It was in his culture, and it started to make more and more sense.”
Professional wrestling is fake, obviously, but Rourke's performance isn't. He's no longer in the big time, but Rourke makes The Ram warm and friendly—with the up-and-comers he faces in the ring and even the kids in the trailer park where he lives. His eyes are bad, he wears a hearing aid, his body has taken an extreme amount of abuse in his lifetime, and although he has every reason to be unhappy and bitter, it just isn't in his nature. A post-match heart attack forces great changes in his life: Overnight, the one thing that he can hold onto—wrestling—is taken away, and he suddenly needs to sort out what to do with himself. How to make ends meet. How to tell Cassidey (Marisa Tomei), a stripper he likes, that he'd like to try being with her. And hardest of all, how to make amends with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).
But here's the thing—Randy's terrible at that stuff. He can come to terms with who and what he is, but that doesn't mean he knows how to be emotionally close to anyone. Rourke, much older and bigger than in his glory days, plays Randy perfectly, a strange mix of hubris and humiliation, shame and pride. He's spent his entire adult life being irresponsible and undependable outside the ring, habits that are tough to break, and the people he wants to be close to see it. Though she agrees to meet him outside the club, Tomei makes Cassidey walled-off and guarded. She loves the attention, but neither she nor Stephanie can trust this hulking, long-haired bruiser who reeks of desperation.
Randy is a tragic, lonely character who knows how to succeed only by dominating the canvas in an entirely phony sport, and Rourke's performance elevates him to a sort of Willy Loman of wrestling.
“Mickey is a method actor, and he has to bring himself to the role,” Aronofsky says. “He went through the film line-by-line, scene-by-scene, and he breathed life into everything. His final speech at the end, he wrote.”
In fact, the performance is so good that viewers may find themselves identifying Rourke's own life with The Ram's. After all, he's bruised and battered, and it's only once in a while when he turns his head that you catch a glimpse of those smirky good looks of Angel Heart or Barfly.
“The reality is that if you look at his eyes, it's all there still,” Aronofsky says. “He's definitely gone through a trip, but that's what makes him fascinating. And, ultimately, that's not Mickey. He was never a father. He's never lived in a trailer park. He's been down, but he's never been that down.”