Evan Rachel Wood and Mickey Rourke star in THE WRESTLER, directed by Darren Aronofsky for Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky)

Maybe Darren Aronofsky actually gets it. As The Wrestler started, I marveled at what must have been Aronofsky’s longest shots to date until they kept getting longer and longer. His direction of the film is incredibly simple–put the camera on the actors, occasionally do an establishing shot. No medium shots. Long shot to close-up. The handheld camerawork is excellent. He frequently follows Mickey Rourke around, a move–similar to one Bryan Singer just used in Valkryie–seemingly with roots in modern video games. It’s strange seeing it here, in this iconic, timeless motion picture. It feels just right, something Aronofsky never gets wrong–The Wrestler always feels right.

The film escalates to such a peak throughout the running time, when it reaches the third act, it’s precariously perched. For the second time this year (August was the other), a film got its ending perfect. No false stops, no trickery. Just the ideal choice in under the circumstances. I can’t believe The Wrestler pulled it off, since my faith in Aronofsky as a filmmaker basically started a scene or two into this film. But Aronofsky isn’t working without a script here–Robert D. Siegel’s work here is outstanding. The script’s tiered. Since The Wrestler is such an all-time Hollywood upper, Siegel works in quite a bit of humor–the staging of the wrestling matches provides a lot of laughs (Aronofsky’s pseudo-documentary approach really works well in the wrestling scenes). The film never gets expositional when it comes to how the wrestling matches function (how do they decide who wins?), always giving enough information for the scenes to pass clearly.

The script also has a–somewhat–subtle juxtaposing of Rourke’s wrestling and Marisa Tomei’s stripping. Neither are spring chickens, both operate in a land of make believe where the audience is a willing participant. It’s sort of obvious if one were to think about the comparisons, but the film doesn’t exactly make a lot of time for such reflection. The film’s packed, with no digressions. Everything revolves around Rourke. Well, except maybe a scene. And I think it’s the scene where the juxtaposition occurred to me–there’s a scene with Rourke shaving his pits, then Tomei’s on stage with her pits obviously shaven–it all falls into line. It’s discrete, not at all overblown, and it’s never played like an eventuality. The reason washed-up wrestler Rourke’s love interest is a single mom who strips isn’t because there’s a good analog going, it’s because Rourke’s the kind of guy who hangs around strip clubs.

As for Rourke, in his much lauded comeback… he’s great. But it’s the kind of thing Rourke has been able to do his whole career. He’s always been an excellent actor. If anything, The Wrestler is a bit depressing in that respect–there are so many great roles he could have done, but never had the opportunity. Aronofsky’s camera follows him around, listens to him, takes a step back and watches him. It’s a transfixing performance.

I think there are only three actors listed in the opening titles–Rourke, Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. I’ve heard great things about Wood, but I’ve never seen her before (“Once and Again” doesn’t count, does it?). She’s great. Every delivery, every gesture, every expression, all are amazing. Seeing her and Rourke together, it’s one of those acting team-ups one doesn’t get to see very often.

The surprise, then, is Tomei. For all the hubbub surrounding the film’s acting, it ought to go to her. Tomei’s got a decent-sized role–Rourke’s in every scene except two–but she creates this character with a life going on off-screen. I kept wondering why Aronofsky ended each scene with her in the club on stage–it seems (I mean, I am giving him a lot of credit already) like the scenes are meant to get the viewer to think, to imagine that off stage (and off screen) life where the film hasn’t taken him or her. The film relies on the viewer to fill in the blanks, without ever identifying the blanks.

The Wrestler‘s a significant film–it’s Rourke (finally) in a role an actor of his stature deserves and it’s the first time Aronofsky’s come near deserving his critical rep (maybe he should just direct other people’s scripts). The end, following that moment of indecision–where the film could veer far off course–is glorious.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Darren Aronofsky; written by Robert D. Siegel; director of photography, Maryse Alberti; edited by Andrew Weisblum; music by Clint Mansell; production designer, Tim Grimes; produced by Aronofsky and Scott Franklin; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Mickey Rourke (Randy), Marisa Tomei (Pam) and Evan Rachel Wood (Stephanie).


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