The Wrestler is a deliberately non-intellectual film, but I suspect, for director Darren Aronofsky, it may have been a severely, even savagely intellectual exercise to make a non-intellectual film. The maker of such cryptically sub-Kubrickian works as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, Aronofsky always seems somewhat lost in his own existential milieu, usually to incomplete but entirely fascinating results. His films are, let us say, very icy. Anyone searching for humanity would find a great wide empty hole (very Kubrickian at that). But anyone searching for ambition and cryptic experimentalism? A great concrete slab of pure filmmaking.
The Wrestler could not be further from his prior films, not to mention the two films he has since directed, the vertiginous Powell-esque study in insanity and fractured identity that is Black Swan and the feverishly bonkers gonzo Bible epic Noah. So different, in fact, and so sedate and classically Hollywood is The Wrestler that one desperately researches online to see if Aronofsky’s name on the credits isn’t some sort of joke.
That being said, over the past decade, Aronofsky’s aesthetic has emerged from the depths of his mind. Or, rather, his lack of singular aesthetic has emerged, filtered through his interest in taking on existing, and usually long dead, film genres. The Fountain is his Tarkovsky showpiece that out-Solarises Solaris. Black Swan is his lusty exercise in color and psychosexual manipulation straight out of 1940s Britain. Noah is his sweepingly heated take on the Biblical epic and its melodramatic, Shakespearean origins. All of them, in their own way, are worthwhile messes where failures are intimately linked to successes, films where greater composure and conventional “success” would only have blunted their off-kilter impact.
The Wrestler, meanwhile, is Aronofsky’s old-school male-weepie, feigning quasi-naturalism to arrive at its true destination somewhere near On the Waterfront and Elia Kazan’s romantic parade of the lost and the loners. Certainly, Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s brawny, taciturn demeanor aims close to Marlon Brando’s coulda-been-a-contender Terry Malloy in Waterfront, and you half expect to see Brando emerge off the side of the screen here as an old wrestling promoter or something, had he still been alive of course.
Brando does emerge though, in the sweatiness of Aronofsky’s plain-as-day vision and in the quiet want and stumbled, sluggish gestures of Mickey Rourke’s wonderful performance in the main role of well-past-his-prime wrestler Robinson. We see it whenever Rourke has to interact with the outside world and belabors his words with the full weight of a man who would rather have people stare at him from afar than actually have to interact with them. We see it in the hurting twinkle in his eye every time he stares on at those people in the crowd, himself taking a chair to his opponent’s head. We see his want. We see his flesh. To get reductive, The Wrestler is a one man show, and Rourke, then a past-his-prime actor who undoubtedly felt the better days of the 1980s in the character of Robinson, sells every moment of his return in one of the great comeback performances of modern cinema.
It is a slight disappointment that the film around Rourke doesn’t quite have the meat he brings to the role. It is a thoroughly engaging, heartfelt, mature, and above all humane film, but it is limited in its every-day exploration of Robinson and fellow past-her-prime loner Pam (Marisa Tomei). It feels for both of them, catching the two of them wander around in middle age without much of an idea of where to go. But other than watching them feel, the film doesn’t much know what to do with them either.
Which is what ultimately makes The Wrestler a slice-of-life more than anything else. It is also what forces us to confront some of the washed-out dialogue in Robert Siegel’s shockingly sincere, earnest screenplay, almost to the point where the cloying dialogue becomes as much of a strength as a weakness. Indeed, the dialogue is entirely within the spirit of this sort of Old Hollywood male melodrama about an old washed-up wrestler attempting to cope with middle-age and continue living his dreams in his head. A style which puts it somewhat at odds with the straightforward grunge of the filmmaking, which doesn’t quite see Aronofsky resting on his laurels, but The Wrestler definitely seems to be quieter from a visual standpoint than any of his other films, and much more script-driven. A contrast which makes the film seem a touch 1950s and a touch 1970s, and the two don’t entirely work together. The realism of the filmmaking badly accentuates some of the triteness of the dialogue, a triteness that would have felt more endearing done up in the glamorous, lush style of a Nicholas Ray, for instance.
But then, that is Aronofsky for you, always experimenting and never really reaching his goals. If he did, he would be a lot less fascinating, and what he achieves here is still plenty satisfying: a truly brittle, hurting character study with a monumental central performance that is, quite legitimately, one of the best character-actor pairings of its decade. When all is said and done, it is hard not to wish that Aronofsky had been a little more showy with his failures here, as he usually is, but then, the way the film only really comes to life in its wrestling scenes is itself a commentary on Robinson the person; ever the dreamer, he really only lives in the ring, and the film wants to let him come alive in the only place he knows how.