We all remember Mickey Rourke, the scruffy pretty-boy who whispered his way through Diner, Rumble Fish and 9 1/2 Weeks. Rourke was the James Dean of the 1980s; every decade's good for at least one. But he had an acting style all his own - shy, yet sly, purring his lines like a cat angling for a bowl of milk. He had a taste for squalor, too, topping off the early part of his career with a resplendently sleazy performance as Charles Bukowski in Barfly. Then he more or less abandoned Hollywood, fed up with acting, which he described as "women's work." Brando had felt the same way about acting, and Rourke had some of Brando's bruised masculinity, a downed beast licking its wounds. There was sensitivity under that remoteness under that feline grace. And Rourke could summon up all three at the same time.
Then he became a professional boxer - not the wisest career move, perhaps, but he felt the need to callous over that bruised masculinity, toughen up. The good or bad news is that, after several years in the ring, Rourke is now all bruises. As Randy "The Ram" Robinson in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, he's almost too sensitive. (Rocky Balboa is a cold-hearted killer in comparison.) He's also a complete wreck - a face the color and texture of raw hamburger, hair the color and texture of a mop that needs wringing out, a body bearing all the stigmata of steroids. Randy was a headliner during the professional-wrestling revival of the '80s, his signature move the "Ram Jam," in which he would stand on top of the ropes, then drop to the mat, pinning an opponent. But that was then, and this is now.
Today, he describes himself as "an old, broken-down piece of meat." And Aronofsky revels in Rourke's decline, pulling the camera in close to capture every square inch of his battered carcass. He even delays an initial look at Rourke's face, as David Lynch did with his circus freak in The Elephant Man. Those who haven't seen Rourke in a while will be astonished at the change. He doesn't look like his old self, and he doesn't sound like his old self, the croon now a roid-rage snarl. But he never leaves us in doubt of Randy's basic decency. And he wheezes quite expressively. When the movie opens, Randy's career is down to high school gymnasia and VFW halls, trading blows with other has-beens and wannabes. But there's a camaraderie to these weekend warriors. They meet beforehand to discuss moves and story arcs.
The bouts themselves should answer any questions as to whether professional wrestling is fake or not: It's totally fake and violent as hell. Aronofsky lets the matches go on for minutes at a time, and they're like torture sessions, orgies of head-knocking and body-piercing. In one, Randy gets tangled up in barbed wire, slashed with broken glass and zapped with a stapler gun. That's entertainment! The question is: What is it to Randy? The movie doesn't delve into his masochism, as Raging Bull did into Jake LaMotta's, just accepts it as a given. And that limits him as a character, makes it hard for us to understand where he's coming from. Scriptwriter Robert Siegel tries to expand things with some religious symbolism - Randy as a Christ figure, dying for his own sins - but it just seems like an excuse for all that mortification of the flesh.
Marisa Tomei shows up in the Mary Magdalene role - Cassidy, a stripper whose aging body is starting to betray her in ways not unlike what Randy's going through. Their relationship consists almost entirely of Randy forking out the cash for lap-dances, and it's a little underwritten. But Tomei, while baring just about everything, also manages to hold something in reserve, keep us guessing. What Cassidy sees in Randy is somewhat vague. What he sees in her is a way out, a place to park his shattered dreams. After suffering a heart attack, he's told to retire from the ring, but all he's ever had is the ring, the bouts, the cheers of the crowd. Aronofsky includes a long tracking shot of the faded star making his way through a maze of backstage hallways to his new job at...a grocery store's deli counter.
The hair net - a white-mesh chignon - is worth the price of admission all by itself. But Rourke is way too dignified an actor to play the comedy that keeps trying to seep into the role. Randy at the beauty parlor, Randy at the tanning salon, Randy slipping into his lime-green tights - vanity has never seemed so matter-of-fact, all in a day's work. And Rourke's performance is so stripped of vanity that it starts to seem vain after all, an actor daring us to look away. The camera's constantly trailing along behind him, as if he's going to take us somewhere we want to go, but where is that, exactly? What does it all add up to? The Wrestler wants to be Rocky without the schmaltz - actually Rocky VI without the schmaltz. And it is, for the most part, but you have to replace the schmaltz with something.
What the movie does have is texture, from the hearing aid Randy doesn't even try to hide to the wallet photo of his estranged daughter, with its row of successively crossed out phone numbers on the back. Evan Rachel Wood plays the daughter, and she totally nails a lifetime's worth of waiting for your father to remove himself from the spotlight, even as it grows ever dimmer. Their scenes together crackle with resentment and frustration, and you realize, while watching them, that she doesn't understand him any better than we do. And that's almost enough to hang the movie on, but not quite. If Raging Bull was a complicated look at a simple man, The Wrestler is a simple look at a simple man, Aronofsky forswearing the flights of fancy he took in Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain.
Instead, he goes for a documentary feel, the camera always struggling to maintain its bearings, the image so grainy you can practically count the individual bits of silver. At times, The Wrestler resembles Pumping Iron, with its backstage look at a questionable sport, and there's a wonderful scene where Randy and an upcoming opponent shop at a discount store for objects with which to bash each other's brains in. Even here, though, the humor is held in check. It's just another day at the office. To its credit, The Wrestler doesn't look down on Randy. Nor does it look up to him, despite the Christ references. It just gets down in the gutter with him and sees whether he can find a way out. Some will say he does. Some will say he doesn't. The ending leaves him suspended between what he once was and what he may never become.