Jonathan Crocker

Editorial Director | Journalist

DVD review: The Wrestler

Posted by Jonathan On May - 4 - 2009

rourkeMickey Rourke never meets people in offices. He picked a restaurant, his turf, when he heard this “cult, independent, arty-farty kinda guy” wanted to make a film with him. “He sort of walked across the street like his balls were too big for his pants,” recalls Rourke, on The Wrestler‘s DVD interview. “Then he just started saying, ‘You’ve ruined your career for the last 15 years and I can’t raise a dime on your name. If I do this movie with you, you’re gonna listen to everything I tell you, you’re gonna do everything I say and you can never disrespect me in front of the crew. Oh, and I can’t pay you.’ I thought, ‘This is the kinda guy I want to work with.'”

Back in the ’80s, (real) actor Mickey Rourke and (fake) wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson were megastars. Blurred together 20 years later by director Darren Aronofsky, they prove that dying embers burn hottest. The stringy blond hair, the slabs of muscle and the nuclear tan are chemical illusions, but Rourke’s Ram is the real deal.

Talk about vice and versa. Tweaking the script with lines from his own life (“This is what I would say, these are things I have said”), Rourke made it personal. Battered, broke and broken-down, the ageing wrestler reaches out for a human touch to the only two people in his life: pro pole-dancer Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). A blurred memory of itself, Rourke’s tasty face etches more into his character any line of dialogue could.

That Oscar snub validates it completely: Rourke is staggering. Funny, tender, brutal, heartbreaking… his performance is built out of a million tiny, delicate moments: whether playing NES videogames with the local kids, signing old VHS tapes for even older fans or resting his hearing aid on the bedside table. Best of all? For all the autobiog, Rourke never eclipses The Ram.

And in the disc’s remarkable 42-minute Making Of doc, Within The Ring, we see exactly how Aronofsky hammered the performance out of him. Seconds before rolling cameras on an emotional scene between Rourke and Wood, Aronofsky decides to tell the actor his beloved dog has died. Rourke is devastated. He nails the first take. He nails the second take. On take three, Aronofsky looks at the actor: “Mickey, I want you to really bring it.” Rourke: “Did Loki really die?” Aronofsky: “Do it for Loki.” Rourke: “Fuck…”

It gets better. Right in the middle of a wrenching father/daughter meltdown, Aronofsky walks straight on to camera. Grabs Rourke by the lapels. Then by the face. Stares him in the eyes. Shakes him. Then walks back out of shot without saying a word, letting the scene continue as if nothing had happened.

Despite the fact his last three films grapple with doomed love, Aronofsky’s brain throbs harder than his heart. No audio commentary here, but watch him at work on the documentary and you see a filmmaker so meticulous and so certain of everything. While Rourke’s stunt double picks bits of broken glass out of his bleeding back (“I’ve learned to make pain my friend”), Aronofsky is keenly constructing the hand-in-the-meat-grinder scene. But even when you do feel Aronofsky pulling the strings, Randy’s ritual of suffering is all affection and humanity. Of course, this Sacrificial Ram doesn’t get it when Cassidy tell him to see The Passion Of The Christ (“Tough dude!”).

Given little to do by the script, Tomei’s incredible performance morphs her own character into a moving, fully believable soulmate to Rourke’s. Both sell their fading bodies as primal fantasies for an audience desperate to believe. Their names aren’t real but they are. Love, hate, wrestling, stripping, movies… It’s all drama that’s fake and real at the same time.

Somehow, The Wrestler seems to flex effortlessly with these double-meanings. Because as it tears through the visceral details of ring combat – razors, barbed wire, staple guns – Aronofsky’s film also digs brutally into the clichés of its predictable parable with vivid, unflinching honesty.

Shot in 35 days, with no storyboards, for $6 million, edited on a single Mac, it’s the kind of movie you just don’t see that often. Minimal story, maximum emotion, stripped down to its subtleties. Shivering with him in the barren New Jersey nowheresville, Aronofsky’s hand-held camera just follows Rourke every step of the way. It can’t leave him. Neither can we.

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Read the original article at Total Film.

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Jonathan is a London-based journalist, critic and editor. He currently works for data visualisation agency Beyond Words.

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