A fine, winning film, Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" treats it’s generic narrative with respect, as if playing it old school, conventional but not patronising, and allows performance and execution to elevate the material (like, say, "Million Dollar Baby" but unlike "Slumdog Millionaire"). And yes, Rourke’s performance as Randy the Ram the one-time wrestling sensation is compelling, bold and truthful, living and breathing. There is some irony that the performance seems be considered an instant classic and one for the ages, as it's a tale of a burnt-out star, trying for a comeback. Truth is, Rourke may well have already stolen the show in "Sin City", and this is just moreso. The film is lo-fi, mature, sentimental, stripped down and moving. The choice of Bruce Springsteen for the theme song is totally appropriate, for the film plays like him at his acoustic best.
The narrative and Robert D. Siegal's script are equal parts slapped down obvious and underplayed detail. The allusions to Christ martyrdom come with verbalised signposts, and Randy’s love interest is a stripper (Merisa Tomei), so we thoroughly get the whole body as abused commodity and meat market angles. But Randy-Rourke’s daily routine, juggling the need for cash with an increasing battle with age and loneliness, is comprehensive and totally convincing. The incidental details and moments raise what is otherwise standard: when Randy starts to displace some of his wrestling showmanship into killing time working on a deli counter, it’s funny and thoroughly real; when Randy wakes up after a wild night on the town in some one-night-stand's bedroom covered in firemen posters, it's the kind of story you laugh about with friends years later. The backstage wrestling camaraderie carries an unglamorous sense of authenticity as screenplay and direction refuses to condescend to the amateur wrestling circuit or play it up as a freakshow. Aronofsky’s methodology is simple: the long takes that follow Randy around are a treat; alternately he gets in close and quick for the fights, which seem full of pain and humiliation, regardless of how staged they are.
That the story hinges on a heart attack and one last bout, and that there is an estranged daughter to try and reconnect with surprises nobody - the latter being the weakest subplot where Evan Rachel Wood delivers some TV acting that only looks artificial compared to what's around her. Nevertheless, even her dance with dad in a dancehall arguably works because (a) the fact that Randy can lead hints at another side of him rather than triteness, such is our investment in the character, and (b) the dancehall is deserted and decrepit, continuing the film’s milieu of crumbling surroundings, of deserted signing sessions, of soulless workplaces, of people and places long past their prime and sell-by date. The adults are still living life and finding thrills through the songs of their youth, but also find themselves still making old mistakes. Masochism seems to be everywhere and particularly linked to machismo. No potential romance will resolve all here, because experience and life has left them jaded and no longer able to take new chances. Even so, the unforced moments of humour go some way to balancing out the despair and brutality. It is this ambience that makes "The Wrestler" feel like an adult’s film, full of past glories, wry amusement, fading fame and opportunities. Maybe she gets out, but in the end Randy decides or discovers that all he has left is a choice of how to walk offstage. But more than this, the bleakness is never allowed to dominate, for this is a film of generous humanity that likes people and wants to offer them one last moment of glory.