After winning top honors at the Venice Film Festival, Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler rapidly became the must-see of the Toronto International Film Festival, with huge lines at the press and industry screening this afternoon seemingly unaffected by the news that Fox Searchlight had purchased the film. After seeing The Wrestler for myself, I feel the need to extend a note of caution about the film, which sailed into Toronto buoyed by advance raves for Mickey Rourke's performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a low-level professional wrestler -- and we soon see how really, both those words could be in quotation marks -- whose '80s glory days are long over, scraping by at low-level, low-paying matches until a heart attack forces him to leave the ring and look at his life in the shadow of death. Many have already written about the parallels between Mickey Rourke and the swaggering, scarred wrestler he plays -- early success, fame and notoriety, a series of mis-steps and mistakes taking it all away bit by bit as the years advanced -- and the charge Rourke's own rise and fall offers a filmmaker like Aaronofsky looking to explore ruin and redemption.
But don't believe the hype -- or, more importantly, look past it; if a complicated, messy personal life were all it took to deliver a great performance, Paris Hilton and O.J. Simpson would have more Oscars than Katharine Hepburn. Rourke's work as Randy is physical, invested, powerful and sprawling -- but it's also quiet, sad and hauntingly wounded, too. And The Wrestler offers viewers far more than just Rourke's performance -- which, it must be said, is excellent -- if they're willing to not flinch from what it has to say: The Wrestler is a fascinating, rich, unblinking look at the dark, hunched mean streak that lies curled and poisonous inside of so much American popular entertainment and of so much American life. It's early to say this, but The Wrestler is one of the most grimly exciting, magnetically repellent movies we've had in a long time; it's flat-out one of the best American movies of 2008.
Randy's kinda-sorta friends with a dancer at the local strip club, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), and she rebuffs his clumsy advances towards something more than just a customer-provider relationship ... at first. But Cassidy realizes, just as Randy has to, that when you make your living from your body, time is a thief. And both Randy and Cassidy show us the culture of capitalism and the capitalism of culture in modern America, where lust and hate and pain are commodities; you can show strangers your blood or your breasts and make enough to get by but not much more, and often much less. Randy and Cassidy, rocking out to Ratt's 'Round and Round' at a bar, note how "The '80s rule!" Randy owns an old-school Nintendo machine, only because it lets him plug in a game where he can play himself. Randy has his scars; Cassidy, her tattoos, each of them carrying mistakes and memories in their very flesh. They're both living in the past, and the passage of time is sure to leave them homeless and hurt.
Writer Robert D. Siegel clearly knows and understands the heyday of '80s wrestling; Randy's part Hulk Hogan, part Randy "The Macho Man" Savage. But he gets both the big, dumb appeal of those tights and fights and the things hidden within it; Randy's best-known match was a bout with a heavy known as The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller), and a promoter noting the upcoming 20th anniversary of their battle says "I have two words: Re. Match." 20 years after the Reagan era, racism, xenophobia and bloodlust are still a guaranteed draw. Originally, Randy cancels, as he can't wrestle anymore; later, he agrees to do the match, even though it may kill him: "The world don't give a shit about me," he says -- with the sole exception of what happens in the ring. And as The Ayatollah takes to the ring, with the crowd singing "Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran ..." John McCain-style, Randy goes to serve the howling need of the idiot mob. Because that's all he knows how to do.
Aronofsky's direction is vulgar, muscular and impressive, with the wrestling action conveyed with strength and conviction; later, Aronofsky's work is impressive and intimate, as in a scene where Randy goes from the dressing room at the grocery store where he works part-time to do his first shift serving the customers at the deli counter, the hum and howl of the industrial fans and cooling units shifting to the roar and rush of the crowd he knows from when he went to his public in the ring. A sequence where we watch Randy's wounds being cleaned while we cut back to see how he earned them, real agony and blood as a byproduct of a 'fake' fight, is not only shocking and superbly cut but unexpectedly moving; medics pull staples and glass from Randy's flesh, and then we see how they got there, and we understand the man willing to endure all that in the name of what he knows.
That's entertainment. Randy, post-heart attack, reaches out to his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), trying to atone for leaving her behind. "I'm an old, broken-down piece of meat. And I'm alone. And I deserve to be all alone. But just don't hate me." It's hard to imagine what's worse -- saying such a thing, or needing to. And the scenes with Randy and Stephanie don't feel cliche; they feel messy and raw and problematic, like life. Late in the film, we watch Randy and one of his opponents as they clutch and slam at each other, covertly muttering to each other about their next choreographed moves in their match: Watching The Wrestler feels like those moments, as a fierce and smart film knocks you down with power and flash and then whispers you secrets you should listen to even as the blood roars in your skull.