NYFF Closing Night: The Wrestler brings the camera to the arena

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler
Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky, director of the virtuoso Requiem for a Dream (2000) and last behind the camera for The Fountain (2006), is striking at new ground with The Wrestler, a film of surprising compassion about the small-town circuit of professional wrestling. Aronofsky himself mentioned at the NYFF press screening that he’s always been curious why there were so many boxing films as an American oeuvre, but none that tackle the sensation of professional wrestling. With this film, he does it graceful justice.

Ahead of the camera is a sublime, anchoring performance by Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a man well past his heyday from the sold-out crowds of his professional wrestling career in the mid-1980s. His very vitality, however, still lies with wrestling; it’s his only source of income, all he knows how to do, all he loves to do, and he moves up and down the mid-Atlantic through towns like Rahway, New Jersey and Wilmington, Delaware to do it. He’s well-respected among his fellow wrestlers, though it’s clear that he’s approaching the eclipse of his career. Playing to smaller arenas and various perversions of the standard WWF glam of the 80s (including one match involving stapleguns and barbed wire), The Ram is running out of gas, finally collapsing of a heart attack after a particularly brutal match.

This heart attack is the pivot of the film; The Ram, more aware of his mortality than ever, is adrift with a job behind the deli counter at a Central Jersey supermarket. He tries to reach out to his estranged young adult daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), though he isn’t sure of his own intentions. He tries to forge a deeper relationship with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a simpatico stripper he’s known over the years; it’s perhaps with her that he is able to grapple with hope with respect to What Comes Next in his life, and a scene where the two share a mid-afternoon beer at a dive bar is both tender and unflinching in its honesty.

The screenplay by Robert D. Siegel is a fascinating deconstruction of two people whose lives are critically connected to their jobs; both are past the prime their profession requires, and this fact alone is an inevitable threat to their respective occupations as professional entertainers. Tomei’s Cassidy serves as an effective foil to Rourke, playing both parallel and counterpoint to The Ram and thereby provides a satisfying depth of context to the film. Rightful praise is being showered upon Rourke; his performance is effortless and careful not to drift toward the sentimental. Tomei (who likely can boast more shirtless screentime than many other over-40 Oscar-winning actresses) is always a welcome presence onscreen, though this role doesn’t grant her the access to the break-out intensity of some of her past work.

Much of the pleasure of Aronofsky’s work is in his sincerity to the material. Reaching out to the professional wrestling community, Aronofsky casted only professionals as the wrestlers in his film. He’s careful to not mock his characters despite their flirtations with destitution. This ode to a fictional wrestler at the pinnacle of his life is captivating and never rings false; Aronofsky is consistently proving himself to be one of his generation’s most gifted and earnest filmmakers.

The Wrestler closes the New York Film Festival this Sunday night.

See the filmlinc blog’s complete coverage of the Wrestler

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2 Comments on “NYFF Closing Night: The Wrestler brings the camera to the arena”

  1. […] Read NYFF festival correspondent Tom Treanor’s review. […]

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