If it was a comedy, this would star Will Ferrell in a beefcake fat-suit with other wiseacre comics playing his various wrestler comrade-opponents, looking on blankly while Will attempts his delusional comeback in the ring. But it’s deadly serious, and Mickey Rourke – famously once a contender in the marginally more credible world of boxing – is sublimely cast. Something about this gutsy, heartfelt drama from screenwriter Robert D Siegel and director Darren Aronofsky alchemises Rourke’s conceit into a terrifically engaging, likable and even vulnerable performance. Happily for them both, Aronofsky appears to have caught the 52-year-old Rourke at just the right time with just the right role. This film won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice film festival, and it’s an exhilarating victory for the director after his dreadfully limp and overblown fantasy The Fountain. And for all his grotesque appearance in the film, Rourke plays something he has not been much known for in his acting career: a human being.
He is Randy “Ram” Robinson, the washed-up star of the 80s professional wrestling scene, still roaring and crashing around the circuit to a diminishing crowd of nerdy male fans and dead-eyed blonde women keen to “party” after the show. He is mutton dressed as steroid-injected lamb, pecs and abs and biceps clenched with timor mortis, his hair an unshorn Samson shower of dyed blondness, fervently modelled on the heroes of the 1980s stadium rock scene. The Ram makes no secret of his detestation of 90s music in general and Kurt Cobain in particular. Rourke’s face has a ruined leonine quality, his lips perpetually pursed in something closer to shark pout than a trout pout. Les Kellett he ain’t.
Randy is, poignantly, in love with a pole-dancer called Cassidy, played by Marisa Tomei. She is herself getting too old for a business whose similarities to Randy’s are made reasonably clear. But while Cassidy gets dollar bills stuck in her stocking-tops, Randy invites hopped-up guys in the crowd to smash metal fold-up chairs over his head before the action commences. As if to anticipate or pre-empt metaphorical readings of the wrestling game, Aronofsky has Cassidy occasionally behave like a 21st-century Mary Magdalene, tending to poor Randy’s post-match wounds in the lap-dancing club, and quoting to him stretches of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Who knows? Perhaps Aronofsky was also playfully hinting at Roland Barthes’s ruminations in his 1957 essay The World of Wrestling: “I have heard it said of a wrestler stretched on the ground: ‘He is dead, little Jesus there, on the cross ...’” There is, however, nothing little about Mickey Rourke.
After a horrendous heart attack, Randy is ordered by his doctors to quit wrestling or die. He decides to use this enforced leisure to re-establish contact with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). But this is a painful, difficult business, and then Randy is offered a mouthwatering purse for a big rematch with his old enemy from the 80s glory days: the “Ayatollah”. Now that hating Iran is big again in America, this looks like box-office gold. Surely one more bout won’t hurt? Has Randy got the balls to go into the ring with the Grim Reaper himself?
Deftly, sympathetically, Aronofsky immerses us in Randy’s strange world. Making ends meet with a supermarket job, he is part of what looks a weird cult that meets at the weekend. He and about a dozen other wrestlers are shown squeezing into the dressing room before a show, and hilariously, surreally, there is hardly enough room on screen for all these absurdly huge bodies. It is a wall of pumped-up and damaged flesh. They are, however, not at all cynical or mean to each other; on the contrary, they are mutually supportive and friendly. Even the “fix” for each bout is regarded with the same reverence as the established choreography of a bullfight.
But the wrestling is horrible. Randy smuggles a razor blade into the ring, and though it isn’t what you might think, the resulting episode speaks volumes about the self-harm, self-doubt, self-hate and tatty addiction that underpins the whole business. The bout that finally brings on Randy’s cardiac arrest is a truly revolting X-treme match, featuring blunt implements, barbed wire and staple guns fired into pudgy chests - the staples have to be removed after the show by an on-site medic. Randy and his fellow grapplers are basically demi-snuff porn actors.
Despite the horror and the physical punishment that Randy absorbs so uncomplainingly, the biggest and scariest challenge comes when the supermarket manager at his day job makes him man the deli counter and deal with the grouchy customers wearing a wussy hairnet. Coming out to face his public is worse than any wrestling match, and yet Randy’s invincible showbiz chutzpah wins through. Metaphor isn’t far away as Randy is soon charming and backtalking all the old ladies and blue-collar guys who want his smoked ham and baloney.
The Wrestler runs on what are admittedly pretty traditional lines for a sports film, yet runs on them with exhilarating speed and attack. I was waiting for a cop-out ending, but it never arrived. Rather magnificently, Aronofsky finally gives schmaltz the forearm smash and puts the smackdown on sentimentality with a heavy-duty chokeslam - as it were. After an uncertain period, this director has rediscovered his grip.