The director Darren Aronofsky's latest film, The Wrestler, is the closest this oft-misjudged film-maker has ever come to making a conventional movie, and it works for him. It's an intelligent move that will reassure all those fans of his that were alienated after the ill-conceived sci-fi fantasy The Fountain, and will also win audiences over in the theatres. For what is more American than wrestling? The story itself is in fact decidedly unconventional. It follows an aged, down-and-out grappler named Randy "the Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke), whose loneliness and sudden ill-health provoke an attempt to contact his estranged daughter.
We are introduced to Randy on fight night, as he wins over a rowdy crowd to retain his position as champion. Then we experience his subsequent comedown after finding himself locked out of his trailer-park home for not paying the rent. As his puffer-jacketed form shuffles to sleep in the back of a minivan plastered with peeling posters, we realise that life hasn't been so kind to burly Randy. Through all this, Aronofsky employs the kind of hyperrealism that was used so effectively in his Hubert Selby Jr adaptation, Requiem for a Dream. It is the perfect complement to a sport that involves so much colour and theatrics, yet here is exposed warts and all by some sharp direction.
Aronofsky has created a hero in new and unflattering clothing. Despite straying once or twice into cliché territory, he manages to leave melodrama in the locker room, for the most part. Randy is certainly a gladiator in the traditional sense, a hired performer whose job it is to satisfy the bloodthirsty appetite of a baying mob. And Rourke hands in a titanic performance. A face scarred by cosmetic surgery and skin dried to a crisp orange by all those years of enforced tanning and Botox injections, he is really a sight to see. Randy is certainly a likeable character, though, and despite his drug-addled state and consequent violent outbursts, there is a kindness in him that is appealing.
One flaw I would point out is the curious tangential segments involving Randy's daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). While these appear critical to the plot, they don't actually advance it whatsoever, nor do they serve to develop the main character. At least not in the way that Randy's relationship with a retiring stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), does.
But it's safe to say that Aronofsky has stepped back into the ring to deliver a redemptive and resounding blow to his critics.
Nicholas Page, graphic designer, Rome
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