Review by Gordon Justesen
Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 109 Minutes
Release Date: April 21, 2009
“The only one that's going to tell me when I'm through doing my thing is you people here.”
Darren Aronofsky, I strongly feel, is on the verge of becoming the next Stanley Kubrick. He’s only made four films, but they’re each so incredibly different in tone and content in the same manner in which the late, great director’s films were. And like any Kubrick opus, Aronofsky’s films stay with you long after you watch them.
When I first heard that he was going to be following up The Fountain with a film about wrestling, I got the impression that Aronofsky was going for too much of a stretch. But when it was revealed that he was casting Mickey Rourke in what was indeed an art imitating life type of role, all of my skepticism went away. It was clear what Aronofsky was striving for.
And sure enough, The Wrestler is just as powerful and potent as all of Aronofsky’s previous work. What makes this film distinctive from Pi, Requiem For a Dream and The Fountain is that, at the core, it’s simply an observant character study. Though this marks the first time Aronofsky isn’t directing his own screenplay, the overall impact of the film is delivered by how he has executed the story through his vision.
At this point, there’s nothing more I can really add to the enormous acclaim that Mickey Rourke has received for his portrayal of aging wrestling has been Randy “The Ram” Robinson. It’s a performance so deeply mesmerizing in a surreal like nature, since Rourke himself is uncomfortably identical to the character in many ways. In the same way that Tony Stark was tailor made for Robert Downey, Jr., Randy “The Ram” was meant for Rourke and no one else.
The opening title sequence features a striking montage of images illustrating the crazy level of fame Randy attained in his wrestling glory days. Then the first actual shot of the film picks up 20 years down the road, where the once famous Randy is now reduced to playing at smaller venues for very little pay, in addition to numerous autograph signings. One glance at his physique and it’s very clear that the many years of getting constantly bruised and beaten have taken a huge toll on his body.
To say that Randy has fallen on hard times is a bit of an understatement. He now lives in a trailer park, where at one point he’s forced to sleep in his van due to issues with rent payment. The wrestling gigs these days only pay a small fraction of what he use to make in one match.
But Randy has two things in life to always look forward to. The occasional wrestling matches help him to gain a sense of pride, since it’s the only thing in life he’s great at. And he always finds happiness when making visits to his favorite stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), whom he has affections for beyond the many lap dances.
After suffering a near fatal heart attack following a wrestling bout, a doctor advises Randy to give up wrestling or risk possible death. Though the news does damage his dream of recapturing his wrestling glory days, it does inspire him to reevaluate his life. He ends up revisiting several areas in life he never expected to deal with anymore.
The main error he wants to resolve is the relationship with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (the always amazing Evan Rachel Wood). He hasn’t seen her in many years, and fears that she wants absolutely nothing to do with him since he did choose fame over fatherhood. He visits her, and though she is bitter towards him at first, he pleads with her to give him a second chance. I don’t want to reveal how this storyline is resolved, except to say that Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert Siegel apply a daringly realistic conclusion.
The same can be said for the ending of the film itself. I’ve long debated in my mind if the film’s ending is uplifting or something of a downer. Aronofsky, being the bold visionary he is, no doubt leaves it open to interpretation, although it must be said that the film’s final image is mind-blowing in how perfect and appropriate it is, and I dare anyone to disagree.
Though I can’t go on record as saying this is Aronofsky’s greatest work to date, only because The Fountain happens to affect me on a personal level, The Wrestler is nonetheless a dynamic accomplishment and one of the very best films of 2008. It’s a film that should be experienced for Mickey Rourke’s career defining performance, in addition to the equally powerful work from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. As far as intense character studies go, this is easily one of the best ones to surface this decade.
BONUS: Screenwriter Robert Siegel was at one point the Editor in Chief of The Onion website.
Aronofsky was clearly going for a documentary-like approach in terms of the film’s look. And though the picture does have instances of grain, this doesn’t prevent the Blu-ray from delivering what is the best possible presentation one could hope for. The indie qualities play off tremendously well, so much to the point that the grain doesn’t even come close to a distraction. It’s a rare quality for a gritty looking film to appear in such dynamic form, but that’s exactly what you get here!
The DTS HD mix ended up being much more effective than I expected. Though I had seen the film in theaters a few months ago, I had forgotten how strong the sound was in numerous areas. The soundtrack is littered with many 80s metal music, fittingly associated with wrestling. And sequences involving plenty of crowd noise, of which there are a lot, sound most phenomenal and close to what I would imagine being a live action wrestling event would sound like. Dialogue delivery, which is the main event here, is tremendously clear throughout.
The quantity of extras is light, but the quality is very high on this Fox Blu-ray release. We have two lengthy interview segments. The first of which, “Within the Ring”, is quite lengthy and features interviews with the crew and one cast member (Ms. Wood) and covers numerous aspects of the production. Secondly, there’s “Wrestler Round Table”, which includes secrets of the wrestling world from pros Lex Luger, Roddy Piper, Diamond Dallas Page, Greg Valentine and Brutus Beefcake. Lastly, there’s a music video for the fantastic title song by Bruce Springsteen.
The Wrestler is a tremendously powerful piece of work that will linger with you long after seeing it, just as Darren Aronofsky intended. His bold form of storytelling, combined with the brilliant and emotionally charged performances of Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood add up to one of the most brilliantly realized character studies you will ever experience.