For their work in “the Wrestler,” Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei won numerous awards, and both were nominated for Oscars. These two carry the movie, director Darron Aronofsky wisely seeing that their characters and relationships constitute the film’s appeal and supply its major themes.
For this is not a “sports movie,” in the same way that “Rocky” is not primarily a film about boxing. Rather, we are asked to root for a self-described “broken down piece of meat,” ring name “Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson. (No relation) Randy’s real name is Robin Ranzinski, but he has been bent—and gotten bent--on escaping that and other realities. He comes alive in the small gyms where, at the tail end of a grueling career spanning over twenty years, he now practices his art.
And art is what pro wrestling is, albeit a physically demanding one, as the movie unblinkingly reminds us. The opponents agree on their choreography before the match; afterwards, they embrace each other as old buddies. In this world, Randy has the respect of his peers and the admiration of the younger wrestlers. The fans, he tells them from the ring, are his family.
Robin left his actual family some years back, specifically his daughter, Stephanie (Rachel Evan Wood). In a nice touch, screenwriter Robert D. Siegel shows us an old photo of her with a string of scratched out phone numbers on the back. Having suffered a heart attack, her father now wants to reconcile with her. In one of the film’s few peaceful moments—a walk by the ocean—he momentarily reconnects.
But the woman he feels closest to is “Cassidy,” (also not her real name), a stripper in a cheap club. Tomei gives this character more depth than the script necessarily does, her performance a small gem of understatement. She keeps Randy at arm’s length, honoring the club’s “no dating the customer” rule. We glimpse her outside its dark environs only a few times: like Randy, she seems a fiction created by her audience.
The seedy environments, inside and out, are realistically captured by cinematographer Maryse Alberti, frequently employing a handheld camera and a grainy film stock, trailing the subject, bringing us into the action. The wrestling scenes, too, are effectively shot and edited, emphasizing the form’s brutal demands on the entertainers.
From the technical and narrative angles, “The Wrestler” is not an easy film to watch. It’s a low budget, independent film, the opposite of the slick Hollywood production Rated “R” for violence, language, and some nudity and drug use, it will not be to everyone’s taste. But Rourke’s and Tomei’s performances surely bear watching.