The movies have long embraced the sport of boxing — The Champ (1931), Body andSoul (1947), Fat City (1972), Rocky (1976), and Raging Bull (1980), to name just a few. Wrestling, on the other hand, has never really caught on, the one exception that comes to mind being the "Wallace Beery wrestling movie" the hero of the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink is scripting. Maybe Hollywood backs off because the calculated hokum of wrestling is uncomfortably unfamiliar. In his handful of films (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain), however, Darren Aronofsky has shown a fascination with that blurring of reality and artifice, of truth and delusion, endemic to both the sport and the art form. And in The Wrestler he's achieved his starkest and most eloquent expression of that theme.
VIDEO: The trailer for The Wrestler
This is also Aronofsky's funniest film — though apart from some moments in Pi, humor has never been his strong suit. The scene in which Mickey Rourke works in a supermarket deli, his leonine mane in a hairnet and his demolished face looking like a lost moon of Jupiter, may be one of the year's most entertaining. A long-time studio pariah and a textbook case of self-destructiveness, Rourke plays a variation on his own life as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a wrestling superstar from the '80s now enduring hard times. Unlike the non-comprehending pugs in Raging Bull and Requiem for a Heavyweight, however, Rourke shuns bathos and bears his decline and fall with irony and sardonic resignation. The performance will revitalize his career; it may even win him an Oscar.
The Ram, meanwhile, is still getting gigs with fellow washed-ups and younger up-and-comers at venues like American Legion halls. But the pay isn't nearly as good, and neither is the physique as godlike, as it was in those days when his battles with villains like "The Ayatollah" were legendary. To make ends meet, he's had to get a job at the local supermarket. And to help his body keep up with the slams, razor cuts, and staple guns that are all part of a day's work, he juices up with painkillers and other performance enhancers. Otherwise, his life consists of trips to the local strip joint and playing video games in his dumpy trailer with one of the neighbor kids.
Aronofsky records this alien demi-monde with Frederick Wiseman–like verisimilitude, casting actual wrestlers and other non-professionals and prowling about genuinely sordid locations. He also limns his story in the familiar conventions of the boxing genre. (It bears a particularly strong resemblance to Fat City.) The Ram falls for Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper at the club whose best days are also behind her. He has to make amends to his alienated daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he neglected in his wild days of success. And he must return to the ring for that one last match with the Ayatollah and the chance to redeem himself.
But given Aronofsky's liberal sprinkling of messianic references, among them a funny quip about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, it would also seem that the Ram is out to redeem the world. The Wrestler is like the story of the Crucifixion — and for that matter wrestling matches — in that it offers few surprises in its narrative, which some have criticized as rote and clichûd. Maybe that's the point, that the artifice, no matter how hackneyed, beats out the unendurable reality, that the coherent illusion is almost always preferable to the chaotic truth.