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Leap of Faith: Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler"

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire December 18, 2008 at 6:13AM

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
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[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

Labeling "The Wrestler" a "comeback" or "a return to form," as some will undoubtedly do, would be to suggest that Darren Aronofsky's career to date has produced anything that really demands reconsideration, save perhaps the delusional numbskullery of "The Fountain," and only then under the influence of strong psychotropics. He's crafted cruelly effective moments -- images that stick hard and wane only over the long run -- in both "Pi" and "Requiem for a Dream," but my overall sense of his films thus far has been of film-school hypermasculinity run amok.

It may sound paradoxical to suggest that Aronofsky's not a terrible filmmaker even though he's made a series of unnecessarily brutal, intellectually lacking movies, but this is about exactly where he leaves off: visually gifted, intensely visceral, and with about the most lame-brained narrative and aesthetic instincts this side of Guy Ritchie. One need only spend a few minutes with "The Fountain" to see the effects of cinematic ego gone wild; one need spend even less with the weary, credibly inhabited "The Wrestler" to see what happens when unbridled creativity gets productively boxed in by a few well-considered limitations.

The key restrictions placed on Aronofsky's imagination here are the meaty visage and clearly demarcated performance range of Mickey Rourke as washed-up wrestler Randy "the Ram" Robinson and tenderfoot screenwriter Robert D. Siegel's familiar blue collar sports underdog scenario -- the first script, it should be noted, on which the director did not collaborate. Having chunky material to work with, instead of just inventing from whole cloth, seems to agree with the man who put Hugh Jackman in a bald cap and sent him winging through space in a CG snow globe. As shopworn as "The Wrestler"'s set-up might be, Aronofsky shoots the thing with a camera so vigorous it suggests newfound discovery, or at least resurrection.

Resurrection might be more appropriate, especially given the degree to which Siegel seems bent on consubstantiating "The Ram" into Jesus himself. A former mainstream pro now plying his trade on the no-holds-barred independent circuit, "The Ram" can't pay rent on his trailer because he makes too little from wrestling, and what little he does make is spent on the drugs he needs to convince his aging body it's still up to selling his signature high-spot finishes. Absent TV cameras and all-demographics audiences (we're long past the Mania Era here), wrestling happens in busted gymnasiums and feels more like sadistic bloodsport; the mutilating fights and their painful aftermaths provide the easiest links to earlier Aronofsky, yet they never feel anything less than authentic. Even though the tussles are scripted, as we see in an early backstage sequence where all the downcard guys politely pair off to map out their bouts, bodies still get broken up, and after an especially bruising grapple involving a staple gun, "The Ram" finds himself in a hospital with a busted ticker and in need of a new line of work.

Rourke is basically a walking steak, so there's no small irony in watching him prance around behind the counter of the local deli where he picks up work and makes tentative strides towards some kind of deliverance with a smile and a hairnet. He attempts to move past a clientele relationship with older-but-still-hot stripper mom Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), and simultaneously reaches out to the daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, gratuitously written as a lesbian for a few cheap laffs) he'd estranged during his years on the circuit. Will "The Ram" make it all work and find new happiness as a cold cut family man? Or will "The Ram" lapse back into his evil ways? Stay tuned for the Main Event.

That "The Wrestler" somehow manages to evoke both William Wyler's "The Shakedown" and the Dardenne brothers (sure, Aronofsky's been waggling his camera all over since "Pi," but now he's a least pointing it in the right direction) captures the film's neoclassical bent -- the material's familiar, but rendered fresh, unusual, and almost always exciting. Rourke's rock-solid performance provides comfortable familiarity, but also pathos one would hardly expect to spring readily from any of these constituent parts.

So, what's wrong with "The Wrestler"? Minor quibbles: Evan Rachel Wood, as per usual, pitched just-this-side of hysteria at all times; sometimes the warm familiarity wanes to simply been-there; Siegel's stabs at Mickey Rourke-as-Jesus allegory are a little clubfooted (he and Cassidy even go so far as to discuss "The Passion of the Christ" -- Aronofsky gets a smile from the scene, but it still feels as though it was written in all-caps). Even so, "The Wrestler"'s terrific final shot asks us to take a leap into an unknown far more enticing and philosophically rich than anything "The Fountain"'s Buddhist musings managed. Over the course of "The Wrestler," Aronofsky hasn't been reborn, but perhaps he's finally found himself, and hopefully a calling as a journeyman after a decade of navel-gazing passion projects. Where once I could have easily imagined him churning out increasingly irrelevant sub-William Gibson tchotchkes, it looks like he might just grow into the indie league's Vinnie Testaverde.

[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently working on his first film Gerrymandering.]

This article is related to: In Theaters