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By Matthew Sorrento | December 16, 2008

In an ideal world, all performers who have paid their dues would get a vehicle like “The Wrestler.” The film allows Mickey Rourke the opportunity to sport his distinct physicality, regardless if he’s over the 50-year mark. At the same time, “The Wrestler” provides an extensive canvas on which Rourke can color an often physical performance with quiet dramatic tones underneath the loud flourishes of a (pseudo-)sports picture. My guess is that Rourke would have called for co-producer/director Darren Aronofsky’s head if not offered the role. I’m sure the line of interested parties went around the block.

Aronofsky chose wisely, for his own benefit if not just the actor’s. With “The Wrestler,” the filmmaker gives himself a chance to emerge from the dark into brighter, life-affirming thematic territory. His previous film, “The Fountain,” reveals numerous triumphs of composition – indeed, a film best viewed during its theatrical run – but remains a muddled entry, in which form strangles story. Its journey into speculative territory creates a maze in which the filmmaker regresses to familiar ground.

Aronofsky’s debut, “PI” – a black-and-white, subjective nightmare – proved much more successful. His focus, Max Cohen – whose paranoia exceeds his mathematical genius – is doomed from start to finish, and thus viewers are diverted as he suffers throughout a witty suspense plot. (The filmmaker’s original idea – having aliens abduct Max to retrieve the code that demystifies PI – morphed into Orthodox Jews bent on possessing proof of God’s universal, mathematical plan.) Veering towards sensationalism, the result was engrossing, if anti-dramatic: think Kafka stripped of its hope for a better existence.

Aronofsky’s much anticipated follow-up, the Hubert Selby adaptation “Requiem for a Dream,” proved just as feverishly limited. The filmmaker showed his skill at channeling depths of pain from his players, while the hopeful moments slid right out of his grip. Ellen Burstyn manifests pure dread, but her pill-popping mama, who yearns to slim down for a game show appearance, undergoes a ghoulish transformation, leaving her as hopeless as the Black Death that settles upon Jared Leto’s injection arm. The immediate joys of pill-popping and shoot-ups come in sharp transitions that collect into a mass downward spiral. The variety of drug use channels as much despair as a dream thought of a wide-open Coney Island pier, itself spelling a sure decent into hell. The overall result is a fine piece of craftsmanship, quite distinct in style, yet more of a formal feat than a window into humanity.

If nothing else, Aronofsky has proved himself to be a controlled formalist, the Kubrickian kind of director who locks down subjects firmly within the frame. Yet in “The Wrestler” Aronofsky goes verite, as he follows the personal tale of a has-been performer. Aronofsky shows the kind of intimacy with his subject that viewers would have thought impossible for the director, since his previous depictions played more like graphic novel illustrations than cinematic lifeforms. No longer obsessed with constructing detailed compositions, Aronofsky finds the heart of his character and has entered the realm of drama.

Rourke’s wrestler is a nostalgia act in the crudest sense. Having reached stardom in the 80s, he holds on to the era’s rocker style when performing under fluorescent lights at the local town hall. As he did in “Sin City,” Rourke embodies a battler well, and even lends a distinct grotesquerie to him. With bleached blond curls and scarred facial tissue, he often looks like a transvestite version of a muscleman – in short, not far from the aging stars Rick Flair and “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Yet with such devotion, Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson exists as a realistic embodiment of the bizarre.

He believes deep down in his absurd fantasy-brought-to-life. So committed to the mat is he that he moonlights at a supermarket and battles on during the weekends, even as he feels his body shutting down on him. With as many touching moments as low points, Aronofsky finds the humanity in his subject, until a sadistic match – one in which the ring is littered with staple-guns and other cringe-inducing props – shows the director falling back on pain, and in this case, the exploitation of it. This blood-match kicks the script into a new movement, as the battler winds up down for the count. At the same time, Aronofsky and writer Robert D. Siegel abandon their naturalistic verite to rev up a plot-driven structure. From hereon relying on such developments, “The Wrestler” turns into a piece of wildly uneven inspiration – elegant in its simplicity until it’s chopped down by plot devices. It’s as if a zero-degree work of realism – like Lance Hammer’s magnificent “Ballast” – gets body-slammed by the classical three-act structure. A life-threatening injury forces The Ram off the mat, until desperation shoves him back onto it. We yearn for the character who develops on his own, without the script casting down its puppet strings.

Not that the fault belongs to Rourke, who finds a consistency to his sensitive performance. Aside from its plot-driven traps, “The Wrestler” often looks to its character, and rightfully upturns the trite inspiration of the Hollywood sports picture. Rourke embodies a man who sees himself as nothing but a rock body and soon realizes that his commitment can just about kill him. (Real-life examples appear in Chris Bell’s Michael Moore-ish commentary on steroid use, “Bigger, Stronger, Faster.”)

He’s drawn to a person who also masks herself in a fantasy performance – a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, who can’t help but be charming in a hardened role). The rough who’s finding redemption has found a “w***e” with a similar heart. One of the few who can see beneath his armor, she balks when he tries to get close. (His relationship with an estranged daughter [Evan Rachel Wood] is a matter more severe, and quite similar to that of Jake “the Snake” Roberts in the pro-wrestling doc “Beyond the Mat” –as good a source of inspiration for this film as any.)

“The Wrestler” could have been a groundbreaking drama, one that upturns the sensational genre roots from which it stems. With Rourke in such form, it could have been character-driven to the core – if only Aronofsky trusted his character enough to resist screenwriter Siegel’s contrived plot thrusts. Thankfully, a naturalistic Rourke helps us forget such machinations. This tale of quiet sound and fury belongs all to him.

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