Certain movies about losers have a special, desperately moving appeal. By showing us men whose lives have fallen dramatically short of their dreams, they speak to and for all of us. Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, with Mickey Rourke as a broken-down professional wrestling star still clinging to his glory days from the 1980s, could touch a chord in audiences the way On the Waterfront and Rocky did. It has that kind of lyrical humanity. Aronofsky doesn't speak a sentimental cinematic language. Shooting in a grainy, bare-bones naturalistic style, full of jump cuts and raw light and a handheld camera whooshing about, the director of Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain now strips away all frills, tapping a classic Hollywood myth a has-been looking for redemption and, at the same time, transcending that myth. The Wrestler is like Rocky made by the Scorsese of Mean Streets. It's the rare movie fairy tale that's also a bravura work of art.
Back in the pumped-up, heavy metal '80s, Randy ''The Ram'' Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was a big deal, a golden-god gladiator with his own action figure and videogame. His Madison Square Garden bout with a wrestler known as the Ayatollah was seen by a million and a half people on pay per view. But that was then. Now, 20 years later, Randy is a wreck on painkillers, with pulverized bones, a hearing aid, and a face that's been mashed so many times it resembles a wad of dirty Silly Putty. But he still wrestles before small crowds in VFW halls, eating up the bluster of the adoration, which is mostly nostalgia for the bluster of two decades before.
That's something Mickey Rourke must know a lot about. As a young star, he was a bow-lipped bad boy who wooed women on screen with his soft voice and twinkly, knowing smile. Now, it's not just his look that has changed; he seems stunted all muscle and scar tissue, a figure of damaged loss. Miraculously, though, the softness remains. In The Wrestler, Rourke is at once an authentic former wrestling superstar, a Here's How They Look Now! tabloid curiosity, and more than ever a great actor. With platinum hair down to his back, he's like some bloated, freakazoid Sammy Hagar, and he makes you feel every crunched bone and pained breath, the way that Randy subjects his body to punishment to remind himself he's alive. Aronofsky plays off Rourke's fallen-icon status by feasting on that spectacular, pulped wreck of a face. Yet from within that mountain of wounded flesh, Rourke gives Randy a deep, slow voice of disarming gentleness. Randy is the soul of decency encased in a monster's physique, with a buried sadness that, pushed far enough, explodes into rage.
The movie burns through the fakery of wrestling in a touching way, by letting us see how the trumped-up ''enemies'' in the ring actually love and support each other. And they're not just sham warriors. Randy slices his forehead open with a fragment of razor to make sure he's putting on a bloody good show. In one gruesome bout, he gets lacerated by barbed wire and a staple gun. Is such a scene needed? Let's just say it expresses the cutting edge of Randy's pain-freak authenticity.
When he's not in the ring, Randy is basically a polite, saddened middle-aged man who lives in a New Jersey trailer park and works part-time in a supermarket. Aronofsky, working from a script by Robert Siegel, brings us piercingly close to the life of a relic: the visits to the tanning salon, the courteous way that Randy treats even the people who make fun of him, the two-decade-old fan paraphernalia he brings to a pathetically underattended ''legend signing.'' We see how scared he is an insecure dude who never got over his given name, Robin. He's a loner, almost completely isolated, yet he tries to reconnect to life through two women: Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper who has taken a liking to him (but still makes him pay for his lap dances), and Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), his furious estranged daughter, who now wants nothing to do with him. The movie lets us see how Randy was a bad father whose selfishness has broken his own heart. He's a man who has lost nearly everything. Yet he can still reach for grace: Standing up on the ropes, preparing to do his theatrical pounce, he looks triumphant, tearful, and ready to enter heaven. A