Pre-season Oscar forecasters make Mickey Rourke a frontrunner for a Best Actor nod in conjunction with The Wrestler, which made its local debut at the King Center on November 14 as part of the 31st Starz Denver Film Festival, and such prognostications are right -- not that the prediction represents much of a risk. The role includes many of the major qualities associated with a left-field nomination: It's a comeback for an actor who's fallen from A-list status due mostly to his own self-destructive behavior, and it allows him to put painful, personal scenes reminiscent of his own life on display for the enjoyment and titillation of moviegoers everywhere. Score! Too bad the film itself doesn't hit the heights of the performance at its core.
Rourke, who quit acting in order to get his striking features pummeled in the boxing ring back in the day, portrays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a wrestling star during the '80s who's reduced to recreating his glory days in cramped dives in order to keep gas in his decrepit van and the lights on in his New Jersey trailer. The script, by Robert D. Siegel, dangles a big-money rematch with on old rival in front of the Ram, only to snatch it away by giving the old warrior a massive heart attack. Randy tries to start a wrestling-free life, taking a deli job at a supermarket where he'd been working part-time and attempting to establish relationships with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei) who's struggling with much the same existential dilemma as he is. But the roar of the crowd still beckons.
If that outline sounds like dozens of sports movies since Rocky and its pile of sequels, it should -- but director Darren Aronofsky is after something more. Rather than duplicating the hyperkinetic cutting and camera madness that exemplified 1998's Pi and 2000's harrowing Requiem for a Dream, or even the grand lunacy of 2006's The Fountain, he shoots for kitchen-sink realism. His hand-held camera sticks close to the Ram, repeatedly following over his shoulder as he walks down stairs and hallways in a manner that seems to invade his personal space. But even as Aronofsky shows the Ram breaking down in very human ways, he casts him as a Jesus archetype. Tomei's stripper quotes from The Passion of the Christ just prior to an epically bloody match against a masochistic opponent who employs barbed wire and a staple gun. The scene rivals the Russian-roulette sequences in The Deerhunter when it comes to over-the-top symbolism, but with the added element of a long-haired, bare-chested figure suffering for our sins.
In the end, Aronofsky's fetishizing of the Ram's pain becomes a bit redundant -- a problem exacerbated by a plot that goes in the most predictable direction possible. But Rourke makes even the movie's most sluggish sections worthwhile. Unlike Tomei, who sometimes overplays a part that calls on her to be nude or nearly so approximately 75 percent of the time (it even ups the ante on her frequently clothes-free turn in 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), Rourke dials down any affectations, presenting the Ram in as unromantic and straight-forward a manner as possible. Don't know if his approach is due to incredible discipline or his inability to move most of his surgically reconstructed face -- but either way, his achievement is notable. Outside events will contribute to his forthcoming Academy Award nomination just as much as will his performance. But he deserves it anyway. -- Michael Roberts