In Darren Aronofsky's sentimental new film The Wrestler, which closed this year's 46th annual New York Film Festival last night, Mickey Rourke, in a comeback role reminiscent of John Travolta's in Pulp Fiction, plays Randy "The Ram," a down-and-out, has-been wrestler preparing to stage a jingoistic re-match with an old arch-enemy named the Ayatollah. Nevermind that after a lifetime of steroid and physical abuse, Randy should not be anywhere near a ring, especially after suffering a near fatal heart attack. In the course of the film, Randy exiles himself from the ring, and takes a job at the deli counter of a supermarket to pay the bills. Needless to say, it is a career move that can neither sustain nor contain him. In Aronofsky's world the wrestler is a mythic American hero, and wrestling is not just a sport, but the call of the wild which can only be answered by a chosen few. "The Ram" shares a direct link to the cowboy heroes of our film history: men who cannot be domesticated and must wander the American landscape in search of adventures.
Randy repeatedly must take on the lonesome road, and he does it alone, listening to rock-and roll, like a latter-day Wim Wenders wanderer. He is a modern Shane, a modern Ethan Edwards. His destinations are high school gyms and civic centers where he participates in sad, ill-attended autograph sessions with other older, retired, infirm wrestlers. Now and then, crowded, poverty-row wrestling matches are set up for the delight of an insatiable bloodthirsty crowd. These are the last grounds left where the modern hero can trod.
It is a gritty kind of romanticism, the kind that we see in Wallace Beery wrestling films (like 1932's Flesh) as well as the classic The Champ from a year earlier. Even Randy's quasi-girlfriend, a topless dancer (Marissa Tomei in a daring performance), is a caring single mother who knows where to draw the line between her seedy business and her personal life. Further on, when The Ram stages a meeting with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) their scene is punctuated with tears, and they both end up dancing a sad waltz in a dilapidated condemned building. This is very old-fashioned, predictable filmmaking in many ways, and the knee-jerk reaction we get is that we've seen all of this before. The Wrestler is definitely not a Rocky, and it isn't even a Raging Bull (although it shares many similarities with Martin Scorsese's film). In many ways, as wacky as it may sound, it is the movie that Barton Fink was supposed to write in the Coen's brothers 1991 Hollywood send up.
Mickey Rourke is perfect in this film. After years of rehab, multiple arrests, and his own decision to alternate show-business with a boxing career (he was billed as "Marielito"), he has come back full time to the movies with an intense passion for the craft that once made him one of the most sought-ought actors in Hollywood. His looks are gone, and his face is now a mask of broken dreams and botox. But his frightening appearance is the catalyst for the total depth that he achieves in the role. Robert De Niro carefully morphed his appearance for Raging Bull, but Mickey Rourke seems to have fallen into his present physical state, and he is making the best of what he can with it -- and when you are talking about Mickey Rourke, that's pretty good. Thank goodness that his years away from Hollywood have not made him forget what is like to craft a performance in front of the cameras. Arguably, this Mickey Rourke has incredible gravitas, Aronofsky has extracted an unforgettable performance from him, and he is now a deeper, more convincing actor than he ever was. Already there is a very creditable early Oscar buzz about him. And why not! He received a wonderful ovation last night at the New York Film Festival -- he truly deserves it.