Film Review: Wrestling with his demons

2009-02-22 00:00


BY the time you are reading this review, the best actor Oscar will have been awarded. Has Mickey Rourke’s comeback been crowned with Hollywood’s ultimate accolade?

Rourke certainly deserves an award for bravery, because his performance in this film is almost too honest and raw to watch, so closely does the story of wrestler Randy “the Ram” Robinson parallel his own. Rourke was once a Hollywood leading man, but then a series of bad choices and a disastrous marriage led him to give it all away and return to boxing, his teenage love. Now he is an almost unrecognisable, ravaged figure, having had major surgery on his face to repair boxing injuries, and accompanied only by his pet chihuahua.

In Darren Aronofsky’s film, he plays an ageing professional wrestler, who, 20 years after the glory days, still ekes out a living in small bouts in school and community halls around New Jersey.

Despite the humiliations this involves, there is a sense of real camaraderie and respect among the wrestlers. Professional wrestling is a series of planned moves, but the suffering the men inflict on themselves is not always faked.

Throughout, Randy is dogged, his shoulders slumped, his breathing laboured, but his demeanour among his colleagues uncomplaining.

He tries to make more of his relationship with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a lap dancer at a club he goes to after bouts, but she won’t allow her professional and private lives to intersect.

When he suffers a heart attack after a particularly brutal bout, Randy is forced finally to turn his back on wrestling. But what else does he have? He takes a job at the supermarket where he used to unload trucks, but all they offer him is the deli counter. Here Randy must stuff his long, bleached hair under a hairnet and wear a nametag with his real name: Robin. Nevertheless, he tries to do even this job well, bantering with customers while serving up egg salad and ham.

But when his professional (wrestling) life threatens to bump into this humiliation (a customer recognises him) it is the final straw.

He decides to undertake a big rematch with The Ayatollah, with whom he fought at Madison Square Garden at his zenith. This is fraught with danger, but as he tells Cassidy, it is only real life that hurts him.

Rourke’s performance of this sad figure is extremely affecting because of the dignity he brings to the wrestler. Randy feels that he deserves everything life throws at him, telling his estranged daughter: “I’m an old broken-down piece of meat, all alone — and I deserve to be alone”.

The ravages of Rourke’s own life are written on his face and his meaty hands, and he doesn’t hide from the audience, ever. His pain and his perserverance are almost impossible to watch, but his willingness to be so vulnerable makes The Wrestler one of the most wrenching films you will see this year.


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