The 81st Annual Academy Awards are but one week away, and upper middle class America is entering panic-mode trying to catch all the nominated movies they managed to miss. Fret not! Lifting Fog is here to steer your Lexus SUV in the right direction with reviews of some of the less immediately flashy (see: “Millionaire, Slumdog”) offerings. First up: the “resurrection of Mickey Rourke” in Darren Aronofsky’s new(ish) movie, The Wrestler. Let’s hop in the ring!
Second only to maybe Michael Apted’s Up series, The Wrestler is the most exhaustively documented work of non-fiction film-making ever conceived. Working with his subject, Mickey Rourke, for over twenty years as he spiraled into greater and greater self-destruction, director Darren Aronofsky finally reveals the quiet beauty in a life that is at once pointless and-
This isn’t a documentary?
That was a dumb introduction, but it’s true – just like you’ve read in every other review, the line between player and part in this movie is blurred to the point of invisibility. Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, an aging professional wrestler barely surviving on his sparse matches and convention signings. Life has beaten him up – his face is a movie unto itself, really – and he can barely make sense of the world outside the ring. He wears a hearing aid. His daughter won’t speak to him. Yeah, it’s a pretty depressing film.
It’s very likely that Rourke will be leaving the Kodak Theater on Sunday night with his first Oscar, and it wouldn’t be undeserved. But where do we draw the line between the personal and private? At what point does performance become biographical reenactment? In the history of film, actors and actresses have played a wide variety of roles demanding varying degrees of, well, acting. Sometimes an actor known for being a “good guy” will play the villain (Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West). Other times a beautiful woman will make herself ugly (Nicole Kidman in The Hours). And she’ll win an Oscar. Don’t forget those roles an actor was “born to play,” either (Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow; Jamie Foxx, in a performance he could have done with his eyes closed, as Ray Charles). There are a million other combinations; the relationship between player and part is often something that defies easy understanding.
Ultimately, all that matters is what shows up on screen. Despite that pesky awareness of Rourke’s offscreen story, you never doubt his performance. Whether he IS Randy, or Randy IS him, or whatever – it doesn’t matter. The character exists in a state of total authenticity. Rourke clearly committed himself completely to this character, and there isn’t a moment in the film where Randy is anything less than totally believable. Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk was great acting, no question, but this is something more. I hope it’s recognized on Sunday.
This movie will beat the shit out of you. Aronofsky keeps his camera tight and continuously rolling, as though filming a documentary – one from which we can’t look away. Blood. Scars. Contusions. This movie HURTS in a way I haven’t experienced at the theater in some time. The emotional punches aren’t easy to take, either, as we’re so close up to the actors in their most vulnerable moments. Rourke’s monologue to his daughter on the boardwalk just about ruined my makeup.
Of course, “portrait of a sad, out-of-touch man on the decline” (yes, this is a genre) presents something of a tightrope challenge for writers and directors. You want the audience there with you, fully understanding your character’s desperation and depressing circumstances. At the same time (and despite this being a wrestling picture), you don’t want to beat them over the head with that emotion. Even three-hanky movies need a laugh!
It’s hardly a crime, but The Wrestler sometimes gets lost in its own melancholy. In the first half of the movie, especially, we’re treated to an overabundance of depressing imagery. Bleak winter woods. Empty gymnasiums. Fake-wood-paneled trailers. By the time Randy hits a convention of retired wrestling stars peddling their merchandise to the occasional fan, it’s really no surprise at all that one of them is wearing a colostomy bag. Don’t get me wrong – there’s definitely a poetic quality to the visuals on display, and they tell the story in a way that would be less effective in dialogue or exposition. Still, there are only so many lingering shots of a desolate New Jersey landscape a guy can take.
(And really, why is it that New Jersey so often stands in for “depressing backdrop” in movies about blue-collar desperation? Atlantic City. Cop Land. WAR OF THE WORLDS. Besides Kevin Smith’s films – which mine the state for comedic, if not still sad purposes – I can’t think of any films that approach life in the Garden State from a truly positive perspective. If you didn’t already know (or couldn’t figure it out – whaddarya, retarded?), both DJ Steve and I are from New Jersey. The southern part, specifically. And I can assure you it’s not a) the place dreams go to die b) a place to escape from or c) Dutch for “a life without purpose.” It is a LOVELY state that has put up with your abuse for TOO LONG. Wanna fight about it?)
Ultimately any gripes I have with this film are inconsequential – it’s a perfect little gem, honestly, and totally worth your $12.50 if you haven’t yet seen it. Far less ambitious than Aronofsky’s previous works (like The Fountain) or at least half of this year’s Best Picture nominations, The Wrestler peddles in smaller, quiet moments… but moments that explode with deeply felt emotion. Plus sweat and blood. It’s kind of a dirty movie.
What did you think? Is The Wrestler even playing in your area?