January 29, 2009

Movie Review: The Wrestler (2008)

thewrestler2_large The Wrestler is unlike any other film I have seen in some time. What an absolutely amazing film. I sat in the theater watching the story unfold before me in utter silence, transfixed in the darkness. I could not tear my eyes away from this living, breathing person whose life was developing before my eyes. He is a man living a life of supreme sadness, a man so alone that all he has left is his legacy. He lives his life taking work as he can while always striving to maintain that legacy, fighting in an attempt to regain his glory days despite being broken down and unable to perform at his previous level. It is a tale that is timeless, a story that so many can relate to told in a way that unfolds in supremely poetic fashion. The Wrestler is an amazing cinematic triumph.

thewrestler3Mickey Rourke stars as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, an aging wrestler who is well past his prime but continues on as it is the only thing that he knows. Twenty years in the past he was at the top of his game and on top of the wrestling world, everybody knew who he was. Now, twenty years down the road, his body cannot take the punishment and the world has moved on to new, younger stars. This change of circumstance has done nothing to dampen Randy's need for the job; however, instead of performing in huge venues, he is reduced to high school gyms and community centers. In order to make ends meet (sort of) he works part time at a local grocery store.

The movie follows Randy's every move, from his work routine, to what happens when he fails to make his rent, to working small meet and greet wrestling conventions. It is a sad existence, but it all goes away when he is in the ring. Watch him as he prepares for a match, the hero's welcome he receives as he heads off to a corner to tape up all of his aching joints and go over what is about to go down. This is his element, this is where all the troubles of the real world fade away.

When the match is over and it is time to leave, he doesn't want to let it go, so he visits a local strip club where he has befriended an aging stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). The two have an interesting relationship that reveals the chasm between the real world and the job. Randy never made the distinction, always living with the fame and recognition his early success had brought, while Cassidy can never let the chasm close, keeping a strict line between what the job is in the club and her life as a single mother. This is a relationship that weighs on both of them, they share so much in common that I found myself rooting for them to work.

thewrestler5One other relationship plays a part in the film, one that strikes to the very core of Randy, it is the fractured one he has with his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). This non-existent relationship came as a result of Randy's own behavior, abandoning his family for his career. She has never forgiven him for this and now, all alone, Randy returns hoping to make some sort of amends. The scenes they share are powerfully moving.

I realize I have not done the film any justice in describing it, but believe me, this is such an engrossing film with such beautifully written characters that you will thank me for my inability to accurately convey the story.

Honestly, I never thought I would ever see a good film that involved professional wrestling. Any and all thoughts of that disappeared in the wake of Ready to Rumble. What has been accomplished here is nothing short of amazing. It captures a reality that can be off-putting to those not interested, but the way it is shown here makes it all the more endearing.

thewrestler4Mickey Rourke is the heart and soul of this film. I have to wonder if his own life experiences played any significant role in his ability to portray Randy? Their lives seem to have taken similar paths,it seems rather appropriate that his incredible performance here could be a key to his return to the top.

As good as he is, he is not the only bright and shiny performance. One cannot overlook the considerable achievement by Marisa Tomei. She puts it all on the line playing the stripper with heart. Much like Randy, Cassidy is at a crossroads in her life. She is reaching a point where her chosen profession is leaving her behind. She needs to find a new way to provide for her young child.

Aside from the performances, what brings it all together? The screenplay by Robert D. Siegel, of course. There is a subtle build as the characters endear themselves with the audience, capturing the truth behind the mask of the professional wrestler. The words have a wonderful flow that helps bring one of the best characters of the year to the screen.

The work of Darren Aronofsky cannot be downplayed. This is a film that feels distinctly like him, but is completely unlike anything he has done before. It is grittier and much more intimate and, dare I say, accessible than his earlier features. At the same time, The Wrestler just may be the best film he has made to date. It is a film that strays away from Hollywood formula, with compelling characters, intimate settings, and a conclusion that is as absolutely perfect as it is completely sudden.

Bottomline. This is a film that will be remembered for a long time to come. It is a film that any words I can offer will not be able to explain just how great it truly is. The performances are first rate, the story will take hold and you will not be able to escape it. There is drama, romance, comedy, all brought together in a story that feels so real as to be nearly documentary-like.

Highly Recommended.


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