Best of the Decade #3: The Wrestler

As a life-long fan of professional wrestling, my anticipation for The Wrestler began when the project was announced.  The involvement of director Darren Aronofsky and star Mickey Rourke heightened my anticipation even further, especially since the initial casting of Nicolas Cage had me a little worried.  The trailer had me even more excited for the film as it appeared to be everything I wanted in the film and more.  I have a bit of a problem where I allow myself to get so excited for some movies that anything less than a masterpiece will be a disappointment.  The Wrestler is a masterpiece.

Marisa Tomei and Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler"

Despite the b-movie awesomeness that is Hulk Hogan’s No Holds Barred, I don’t think there has ever been a good movie (or even a commercially successful one) made about professional wrestling.  Aronofsky took a huge risk when he decided to make a movie about it, and the risk became even bigger when he cast Rourke in the lead role as Randy “The Ram” Robinson.  Rourke was a budding star in the 80’s, but was basically blacklisted from Hollywood for fifteen or so years after burning several bridges in the movie business.

Aronofsky realized that this is the perfect role for Rourke, but the studio granted him less money because of the casting.  With a reported budget of only $6 million, he decided to make the movie anyway.  The gamble paid off.  Rourke turned in one of the best performances I have ever seen, only to be robbed of the Oscar that went to Sean Penn.  I might never get over that Oscar night, but that is another argument for a different time.

Mickey Rourke is “The Ram” and is the only person who could ever properly play that character.  Randy Robinson is a poor, struggling, washed up professional wrestler who was a headlining superstar in the 80’s but is now wrestling in VFW’s and bingo halls.  The only real connection he has with another person is with a stripper, played wonderfully by Marisa Tomei.  He is offered a chance to wrestle one of his old rivals at an upcoming show and sees this as an opportunity to make it back to the big time.  However, he is forced to reconsider his priorities when he suffers a heart attack after a match and is told he can no longer wrestle.  After advice from Tomei’s character, he reaches out to his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) who he hasn’t spoken to in years.  He also begins to seek more than just a casual acquaintance with the stripper.

The most amazing part about The Wrestler is how much Aronofsky does with the restrictions of his budget.  The film is grainy and raw, which is the only proper way it could have been made.  He does some really interesting things with perspective, putting the camera behind “The Ram” as he is walking around.

I love character studies, and The Wrestler is a fascinating story about a man who fails at everything in his life except one.  He tries to hold onto this one thing for as long as he can and has a hard time adjusting to life without it.  Rourke’s eyes show a true sense of pain and heartbreak.  He isn’t just pretending to be this character, he becomes him.  The Wrestler will capture your heart through the pure goodness in Robinson’s soul, and will shatter it by showing his tragic downfall.

To me, it takes an immense amount of skill to create a new character and bring him to life the way Rourke does with “The Ram.”   I will never forget that character or the movie and actor that introduced him to me.

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