A few years ago I went up for a part in a show which would have meant a couple of scenes in the buff. I confidently told the director that that was fine but I'll be honest now in saying that the nearer it got to a decision being made the more I began to worry that actually, it might not be as fine as I thought. However, if I had spent the entire length of the show without a stitch on, taking a few minutes to introduce myself to each member of the audience personally it wouldn't have been as brave as the body and soul baring Mickey Rourke undergoes in Darren Aronofsky's gritty and brilliant new film.
It makes for uncomfortable viewing, not only because of the sometimes gruesome nature of the action, but because anyone who knows anything of the personal life and history of Rourke will find the line between fiction and reality very difficult to discern, if it exists at all. Aranofsky apparently refused to make the film with anyone but Rourke in the title role (but not before berating him and raking over the coals of his wasted career) and it is difficult to imagine the film being as powerful with anyone else at its centre. From the opening scenes we are looking at a man who later describes himself as 'a broken-down piece of meat'. His face is a mess, his hair dyed and brittle, a cheap hearing aid is obviously visible and every inch of his skin is marked by scars or tattoos, the marks of his history. It is distressing to see this man, for whom physicality is everything, so destroyed by his vocation. Just when he reaches for his glasses in order to read you feel the fall from grace. Add to this the mess of his life; locked out of his trailer home for non-payment of rent, only able to buy intimacy as a customer in a lap dancing club, estranged from his daughter about whom he knows nothing, and you could dismiss this film as two hours of misery. But that would be a mistake.
I complained recently about the black and white morality of Slumdog Millionaire (not to be confused with the primary coloured palette of the film itself - but I know you can keep up with my confused metaphors), well, The Wrestler is rendered in shades of grey, and it makes it a far more interesting film. To present such a flawed hero and set him on a course which could end in either the smallest salvation or his demise is brave. To make your audience care for him nonetheless is a remarkable achievement and a testament to the strength of Rourke's brutally honest performance.
The seemingly mundane task of working at the deli counter is brilliantly used to illustrate both his need to perform but also his shame and embarrassment at finding himself there. The enforced reunion with his daughter doesn't offer any schmaltzy forgetting of his abandoning her, rather he is forced by her to confront how little he knows his own daughter. The other fascinating relationship is with lap-dancer Cassidy (an equally brave performance from Marisa Tomei). She, like Randy, has used her body to make a living and is forced by the cruel taunts from a group of young men in the private VIP room to admit that she is past her prime. She has her own issues of pride which prevent her from forming a closer bond with Randy. These two characters illustrate in very different ways that moment when a person is forced to decide what defines them, or how they want to define themselves.
This isn't a film for the squeamish. Randy's tour of the extreme wrestling circuit provides some scenes of gut-churning violence, but what's actually distressing is just seeing him out of breath, struggling on the brink of what's safe for his exhausted body. It is also the simple scenes that hit home; in one where Randy plays an ancient computer game (in which he is a character) with a local boy, he looks crestfallen when the boy, clearly bored and used to far more impressive fare, leaves him in his trailer. The possibly redemptive ending is skillfully ambiguous and the credits roll with another excellent film song from Bruce Springsteen (how does he do that?).
To lay your life out for all to see is what actors are usually avoiding by pretending to be somebody else. In another strong year if Rourke doesn't win an Oscar, it won't have been for a lack of effort. So whilst some of the other contenders can be seen acting their socks off, you won't see anything like that in this film. He just is The Wrestler.