Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Year of the Ram

I don’t know why everyone is so surprised that Darren Aronofsky was able to make a subdued character study like The Wrestler. Is this so different from Requiem for a Dream? Not really. Think about it. They’re both about people, their addictions, loss, pain, regret, and loneliness. Okay, so his films are kind of depressing, but give me depressing, aesthetically innovative, and emotionally engaging over happy-go-lucky, artistically bankrupt, and forgettably vapid any day. If you have any semblance of a heart whatsoever, The Wrestler will break it. It will make you sad. This is a tough film. But it will also make you cheer: for the spirit of Randy “The Ram,” for Mickey Rourke’s glorious victory, and for the beauty of filmmaking at its finest. The Wrestler is a film that is not easy to shake. It’s easily one of the year’s very best.

I came away from The Wrestler with a huge amount of respect and appreciation for professional wrestling. Aronofsky is so meticulous in his recreation of this world. The details are painstaking and fascinating. In fact, I’m not sure there IS another sports-based film that honors its subject so well. There is so much skill and planning involved, and the wrestlers are so dedicated to the sport and to each other. I was incredibly moved by the overwhelming sense of camaraderie that Aronofsky captures in the wrestling community.

The Wrestler is the ultimate underdog film: it immortalizes the comeback of fallen and, arguably. past-his-prime actor Mickey Rourke playing (BEING) the comeback of fallen and past-his-prime wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson. I can’t think of another role that is so inspiringly autobiographical, or if one exists at all. Randy works weekdays at a grocery store and weekends in the ring. Even though he is still wrestling, and the other wrestlers respect and admire him tremendously, it’s clear that his time has past. 20 years ago, he was on top of the wrestling world. Now, he does shows, but he also appears at fluorescent-soaked, echo-y community centers for autograph signing sessions with a bunch of busted old-timers in which barely any fans attend (but those that do adore him - see why this film is so interesting?). He takes all the wrestling work he can, and while he still has skills, I wonder if he’s being included in these events partly out of pity.

Randy gets the chance of a lifetime when he is offered to headline a major upcoming wrestling bonanza in a re-match of his career-defining defeat of his arch-nemesis, The Ayatollah. Randy enthusiastically, and gratefully, accepts, but in the meantime, after a particularly brutal match involving a staple gun, Randy has a heart attack in the dressing room and requires bypass surgery. He wakes up in the hospital to his doctor telling him that his life is essentially over. His body, ravaged by steroid use and the very real blows in the ring for so long, just can’t wrestle anymore. Hopelessly alone, Randy seeks comfort in Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper at the club he frequents, and Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), the daughter he estranged. He gives up wrestling for as long as he can, but it’s in his blood. He fights the big fight at the end. How could he not? A lot of stuff, surprising and wonderful, happens in this film; I promise I’m not giving anything away. But just in case, I’m going to refrain from doing any more plot regurgitation so that I don’t ruin the purity of the experience for you.

Darren Aronofsky confounded many people with his incomprehensible-yet-beautiful film The Fountain, including myself. But with The Wrestler, he, like Rourke, is back on top. He is truly one of the greatest filmmakers we have and, I would wager, THE most visceral. Even if you don’t understand The Fountain, you feel it. Then there’s the wrenching Requiem for a Dream, an emotional anvil of a film, and one of the greatest masterpieces in cinematic history. God, I love this man. He brings such a visual vibrancy to this story. His style is bold and distinct, he constantly takes risks, and he never compromises his startling and unique vision. He uses the camera as a character to create a sense of claustrophobic isolation. There’s this authentic, documentary-style aura about the film that transcends aesthetics. You are an active part of this world. The aesthetics, though, are astounding: the gritty and gripping cinematography by Maryse Alberti, the powerfully naturalistic and humanistic writing by Robert Siegel, the intricate and essential sound design (Aronofsky utilizes sound as well as Paul Thomas Anderson), and the soul-piercing melancholia of Clint Mansell’s score…when you factor in the acting…it all adds up to perfection.

So, let’s talk acting. WOW. Evan Rachel Wood is intensely moving as Randy’s daughter. She is one of the most gifted young actresses out there. Marisa Tomei should have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She is divine. Her performance is so brave. She’s an aging actress in Hollywood portraying an aging stripper that no one desires anymore. Talk about tough. This is one of the best women’s roles I’ve seen in years. Cassidy is such a strong, compassionate character, and the fearless way Tomei throws herself into this part is mind-boggling. She has to do all of these scenes nude or mostly nude (and she looks fabulous), playing a woman who is being rejected and humiliated by scum whose money she needs. That is some SERIOUS stuff. Women today are under more pressure than ever to maintain a certain (unrealistic) body image, and I admire Marisa Tomei more than I can express for doing such a beautiful job, for the confidence and class she exudes, and for exposing much more than just her body.

Mickey Rourke. What can I say that could possibly be adequate? He’s officially back, and he IS this film. He is its throbbing, beating, bleeding heart. I could see his soul in that weary face. Like Tomei, he is brave and totally fearless. He is utterly unflinching in his commitment to this role. He’s so many different superlatives that there’s no point in me just rattling them off. They’re not good enough, even if they’re all true. The only word that I hope can come close to describing his work is “heroic.” It’s rare to care this much about a character…or an actor. Rourke IS “The Ram.” He’s so astonishingly real that I often felt physically uncomfortable, like I had to turn away from the excruciating loneliness and humiliation that he personifies so relentlessly. Mickey Rourke is primal; he almost looks like an animal. He's got this sexual aura, this rawness, that actually unnerved me at times. He's almost off-putting in the way he looks, but then he's also just a big, adorable teddy bear that I wanted to rock in my arms. I think I kind of fell in love with Mickey Rourke while watching The Wrestler. He made me weep with the beauty and genuineness of his performance. When Rourke enters the arena at the end for the big fight, I got chills all over that were so intense, it felt like my whole body was on fire. I can pay no higher compliment than that.

I’m outraged that he didn’t win the Oscar. A great injustice has been done. Years from now, people will have forgotten all about Sean Penn in Milk, but future generations will always remember and cherish Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Perhaps that’s his real award, and the greater one at that.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)


Bill Treadway said...

This review is PHENOMENAL-it literally gave me goosebumps while I read it! It's intelligently written and you show a great understanding of pro wrestling.

Don't know if it's the best sports-themed film either, but it's certainly the best wrestling themed film I've seen. None of the others are all that good. (Ready to Rumble set new standards for awful)

As for whether it's skill or pity that led them to book the Ram, I took it more as a show of respect for a living legend, as they often do in Ring of Honor. Of course as Ric Flair once said, name recognition doesn't hurt a card either.

Mickey Rourke WAS robbed- and the funny thing is, I think Sean Penn wanted him to win the award. At least that's the impression I was left with from his mentioning and thanking Rourke..And Marisa Tomei would have been a worthy Oscar winner (I lean more towards Amy Adams though..)

Anyway, Lisa, you continue to amaze me with each new review.

matt said...

This was, along with Slumdog Millionaire and WALL-E, the most powerful cinematic experience I had all year, and your review captured all of its raw strength and vulnerability. Penn and Cruz were clearly the Academy's "safe, photogenic" choices. Rourke and Tomei were absolutely courageous, and Aronofsky deserved a nomination as well. He's one of the most exciting filmmakers in Hollywood, next to Paul Thomas Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. I agree that he is the most visceral (perhaps the Scorsese of his generation), and I also agree that the sound design in this film is amazing. The film's final cut to black may be the most visceral I've ever seen.

Anyway, WONDERFUL writing as usual :)

Alexa said...

Thanks for this one, Lisa! I was SO sad when Mickey Rourke didn't win, although I predicted it for the Oscar pool I was in. I just KNEW they would screw him.

a cat of impossible colour said...

Woeza, have to see this!