The Wrestler is the role Mickey Rourke was reborn to play, an astonishing convergence of actor's facts and character fiction. It's hard to tell where Rourke ends and Randy "The Ram" Robinson begins, giving each scene the uneasy feeling of eavesdropping on a therapy session. • Both men led decadent, disappointing lives as performers, on different stages yet starkly similar. Each was once considered the golden god of his art; a pro wrestler acting famous and an actor wrestling with fame. Both underachieved. Dingy gyms where Randy wrestles for rent money have something in common with the bad movies Rourke resorted to. • It's a stunning merge of personalities, as if Rourke purposely trashed his career to inhale Randy's character as a free-fall loser. Director Darren Aronofsky pounces on the parallels, goading Rourke into a confessional by proxy, emotionally masochistic and unforgettable. His Golden Globe for best dramatic actor is deserved; the Oscar should be next.
The Wrestler begins at the end of Randy's rope, aching from another match, locked out of his mobile home and begging for more hours stocking groceries. Downtime is wasted at a club where Cassidy (a superb Marisa Tomei), a stripper with a heart of gold, shrugs off his genial advances. Kids in the trailer park use him for a jungle gym.
A wrestling promoter has a proposition: Randy in a rematch with the Ayatollah (Ernest Miller), 20 years after their legendary fight. The Ram jumps at the chance for a payday, stocking up on steroids and speed to train. These backstage scenes showcase Aronofsky's instinct for realism, pointing Maryse Alberti's handheld cameras to all the right places, mimicking the documentary style.
We see the jock camaraderie among Randy and others gone to seed like him, their plotting of signature moves for dramatic effect. Aronofsky is wincingly honest about wrestling's wear and tear; in one scene Randy sits at an autograph session surveying broken-down wrestlers on breathing, walking or urinary support.
The Wrestler could be subtitled The Passion of the Ram, since Randy suffers to near-Biblical levels. A hardware match leaves his torso gashed by broken glass, his back resembling a crimson bulletin board, impaled by a goon with a staple gun. Such gruesomeness makes Rourke's masochistic past as a boxer and his Method madness part of the show; we can believe this isn't makeup but an actor going all the way, over the edge.
Randy goes there, shoved by a life crisis making him scramble for love with Cassidy and reunion with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). Like other aspects of The Wrestler, these relationships would be corny except for everyone's creative pledge to honesty, not easy resolutions.
The beastliness of Rourke's performance is tamed in these scenes, his genuinely scarred face exposing the Ram's soft underbelly, too late for anything but tragic misunderstanding. Rourke's final closeup, a heartbreaking, almost beatified grimace, brings another movie star to mind. He's King Kong swan-diving off the Empire State Building, or more accurately, the top rope in a wrestling ring.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.