On the ropes
The memory of the Mickey Rourke of the 1980s—the sharp-featured wiseguy, jittery with nervous energy, the one we remember as the arsonist in Body Heat or Boogie in Diner—permeates his comeback film, director Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, the movie that just brought Rourke a Golden Globe and seems odds-on to win him an Oscar next month. The memory permeates the film, and gives us a feeling of incredulity—how did that Rourke, lithe and quick, become this Rourke, puffy and bloated, his face as hard and immobile as a pile of rocks? How did that softly insinuating voice become this jagged, gravelly mumble?
As Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a one-time pro-wrestling star struggling to keep alive his glory days of the 1980s, Rourke looks like a man who’s taken a few too many laps around the block, and always on the bad side of the street. The Ram’s days of packing a 100,000-seat arena are behind him; he’s now working school gymnasiums for peanuts, squaring off against up-and-comers who have admired him since they were kids, and whose voices tremble with respect as they go over the routine they’ll be playing out in the ring.
These matches are “fake,” yes—in the sense that they’re staged, the outcomes agreed upon in advance. But there’s nothing fake about the beatings the wrestlers take; when you’re thrown over the ropes out of the ring, you land just as hard as if the fighting were real, and when your routine includes a staple gun, the pain and blood aren’t faked. After 20 years of such fakery, we can see that Randy can barely hold up. When the heart attack comes one night in the locker room, it may surprise him, but it doesn’t surprise us.
That heart attack is when the melodrama in Robert D. Siegel’s script begins to spill over the top; it’s like a throwback to the old Wallace Beery weepie The Champ, and it creaks too loud for Aronofsky’s vérité style to conceal. And as in The Champ, there’s a child involved, this time a daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), grown enough to be living on her own with a history of bitter resentment toward the father who missed every birthday. Randy will try to repair the broken connection with his daughter, and at the same time he will reach out to Cassidy, real name Pam (Marisa Tomei), the stripper whom he has often hired for lap dances, and who he now wants to know on a personal level. All this, even as he is forced under doctor’s orders to give up wrestling, the only thing he’s ever been any good at.
We sense, with dread, where all this is headed; whatever The Wrestler is, we feel pretty sure it isn’t Rocky. The movie gives us a portrait of a man who has screwed up his life, and makes us resigned to the idea that we’re going to have to watch him screw up what’s left of it.
This is where Rourke’s ravaged, craggy face pays off. Where he once had such an easy physicality, now he looks as rigid as the Thing from the Fantastic Four pictures; his face is all but immobile and the slightest physical movement seems to cost him a tremendous effort. What once might have been expressed by a tilt of his head or a twist of the wrist is now funneled into his eyes, and they become virtually bottomless wells of feeling. Whatever Rourke has been through since his early movie-star days—particularly the boxing career in the early ’90s that reportedly required surgery to repair damage to his face—it translates seamlessly into the ordeal of Randy The Ram. How much of Rourke’s performance is actually acting and how much is Rourke simply being what the years have made him is an open question from this side of the screen, and the role will no doubt haunt him from now on whether he wins the Oscar or not—in much the way that Gloria Swanson’s silent-movie career informed her performance as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, the role that continues to haunt her even beyond the grave.
The picture Siegel and Aronofsky paint of Randy The Ram is a bleak one, but in the end it’s just ambiguous enough to leave us our hope. We see him gasping for breath as he leaps from the top rope of the ring, but the movie ends with him out of sight, in midair, leaving us to decide how we think he came down.