The Wrestler is a true champ—in part because the screenwriter, Robert D. Siegel, and the director, Darren Aronofsky, never go for the knock-out. Instead, they’ve made a beautifully lean picture, austere enough that its moments of sentimentality drizzle like raindrops, and never cascade. This story, which tells of one man’s downfall, is so simple and focused that it might seem puny, but as the titular fighter, beefed-up Mickey Rourke brings to the film every ounce of his weight.
Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson: a middle-aged grocery clerk on weekdays, but on weekends, the elder statesman of smack-down. His salad days of the 1980s are long since passed—he was once famous enough to have been a character in an N.E.S. game—but he’s still accosted for autographs by fans who’ve grown up watching him. However, when not on the mat, he’s just scraping by: He can hardly afford the trailer he calls home, is estranged from his lesbian daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), and the closest he comes to intimacy is with a stripper called Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). Eventually, the physical abuse he suffers in the ring culminates in a heart attack; Randy retires, and tries to solidify his relationships with the women, but fails. When he misses a dinner date with Stephanie because of a weekend binge involving coke and a fulsome floozy, she rejects him permanently; and Cassidy—a single mother—refuses to date a customer. When she finally reconsiders, it’s too late; Randy, alone and despondent, has remounted the stage for one last fight, and given his ailing heart to the cheering crowd.
The plot isn’t entirely original, and some of Siegel’s characters are clichés coated with varnish, but his approach is open-minded. As The Wrestler is executed, Randy is neither blown up into an Arthur Miller everyman, nor deflated by a mean-spirited critique of the lumpen. The picture is human scaled, and its tough-love realism allows Rourke to reveal the grace that can lie behind brutality. His Randy is too large and beastly for his gentle spirit, but is too small intellectually to do much else other than be large and beastly. He’s trapped, but too unwieldy to rattle his cage; and, for the most part, he’s too limited—too shallow—to conceive that there is a cage. Yet it’s a trap that he’s set, and his inability to extricate himself is what makes his story tragic.
But his shallowness isn’t emptiness. Randy is good-hearted and repentant—but he’s also incompetent. Rourke is wonderful because he gives his all, but he doesn’t forsake craft; he uses his too-big body as an alienating device. Randy may be an Average Joe, but Rourke’s physique makes him look as alienated as a penguin in a coal mine. Tomei also acts with her physique. She wrests herself from hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold mediocrity by embracing the sordid in Cassidy rather than the sweet—she isn’t terribly ashamed of being a 44-year-old stripper. Her limited aspirations are part of the movie’s bleak, tragic honesty: its characters are ensnared by their own lack of imagination. The onstage enmity between the wrestlers is just as illusory as the distinction between stripper and trick, and the New Jersey setting isn’t inherently evil (oddly enough, for Jersey…): it’s only what the characters have made it to be. Their cynicism is ingrained, leaving them powerless; the ceiling above them isn’t glass—it’s concrete.