'The Wrestler' is just as much about actor Mickey Rourke as it is about the broken-down character he plays, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, an aging has-been clinging to past glories while searching for peace, reconciliation, and the soul buried beneath his steroid-infused physique. At times, it's tough to tell whose story we're watching – Randy's or Rourke's – yet it's this perfect marriage of actor and role that makes Darren Aronofsky's film such a rich, rewarding experience. Without apologies, without affectation, Rourke brings his baggage to the table and dumps it on the screen for all to see, and the result is a raw, restrained, unexpectedly sensitive portrayal. Like bruises from a body slam, his work sticks with us long after the movie ends, proving that despite his thwarted potential and bad boy antics, Mickey Rourke is still a supremely talented actor.
It's no secret Rourke has endured some hard knocks, but he's a survivor and so is Randy, who's sacrificed everything for the fame and adrenaline rush of the pro wrestling circuit. It's the only thing he knows, and he loves and respects it more than anything else in his life. Sadly, though, age and injuries have relegated the once legendary warrior to the profession's minor leagues, and within its freak show environment he struggles to make ends meet. "The Ram" lives in a ramshackle trailer, works part-time in a supermarket, and performs in third-rate venues for bloodthirsty crowds who want to see if the old guy still has it. Yet like a true showman, he gives every bout his all, pushing his battered body beyond its limits time and again. When a medical emergency puts the brakes on his career, Randy must try to start anew. Lonely and isolated, he turns to his friend Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a heart-of-gold stripper, who urges him to seek out and reconcile with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). But Randy is lost outside the ring, and trying to adjust to a simple, anonymous existence and learn how to relate emotionally instead of physically becomes the toughest battle he's had to fight.
'The Wrestler' is a riveting character study filled with warmth and anguish, fury and self-destruction, and the intimate, grungy atmosphere Aronofsky creates heightens its power. Ironically, for a film that features so much brutality, we're never beaten over the head with messages and overwrought drama. Honesty pervades this piece and also saves it when the plot becomes predictable and the script turns maudlin. By no means a perfect film, 'The Wrestler' scores points with a series of visceral punches that make us care about a grotesque man who's forgone meaningful relationships in favor of head-butting and body-slamming his cronies on a nightly basis. And that's no small feat.
The film also acutely depicts the wrestling culture, taking us into the locker room and allowing us to witness the familial bonds that form, the commitment to craft and high performance (for better and worse), the pharmaceutical lifestyle, the bonding with fans, and the genuine affection the men – who aren't quite the Neanderthal lugs most of us perceive them to be – share. We see these guys meticulously planning their routines and willingly sacrificing their own health and well-being to please the audience. And we see the toll such an abusive lifestyle takes on their bodies and psyches. Some scenes are hard to watch, but it's fascinating to get an inside look at this controversial form of entertainment. (I refuse to call it a sport.) And though Randy and Cassidy – who, at times, seem a little too much like Rocky and Adrian – possess divergent personalities, they share some striking similarities, too. Both put on wild, stimulating shows that appeal to our basest instincts, both create illusions, but Cassidy can separate her job from her life and compartmentalize when necessary. Randy can't.
Rourke has become a bit of a freak show himself over the years, and it's tough to reconcile the lean, slick-talking, hyper-cool cat of such '80s films as 'Body Heat,' 'Diner,' 'Angel Heart,' and '9-1/2 Weeks' with the over-pumped, weathered, scraggly-haired giant of this film. But he's still a magnetic presence, and rightfully received the bulk of praise for 'The Wrestler.' Tomei, however, who also nabbed an Oscar nomination for her performance, should not be overlooked. Utterly fearless, she immerses herself in her role, emphasizing once again – as she did in 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' – that she's one of America's finest actresses. Tomei finds truth in the tiniest moments, and without her heart and integrity, 'The Wrestler' would not be nearly as potent or affecting.
Not everyone will respond to 'The Wrestler.' The seedy locales, degradation, violence, and subject matter may turn off some viewers, but those who appreciate finely drawn characters and emotional human journeys should seek out this small, searing film – one of 2008's finer efforts.
'The Wrestler' is a low-budget, independent film, and that's exactly what it looks like on Blu-ray. The 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encode heightens the gritty, grainy feel, while immersing us in the sleazy bars, dingy arenas, and harsh winter exteriors that comprise the movie's set pieces. Although clarity is always good, don't expect any high-def fireworks; close-ups spotlight Rourke's craggy face and all of Randy's gruesome injuries, but never do we feel as if we're in the ring absorbing body blows or pouncing on opponents. One might think all the grain would disrupt night scenes, but black levels remain deep and stable throughout and no digital noise mucks up the low-lit images.
A welcome brightness bathes the suburban and beach exteriors, but the muted color palette rightfully keeps them from looking lush and idyllic. Occasionally, however, some nice saturation comes through, most notably when Randy pulls a green dress off the rack in a thrift shop. Fleshtones look pretty natural, from the pale skin of Tomei and Wood to Rourke's spray-on tan.
This is far from a bells-and-whistles transfer, but the folks at Fox have accurately replicated the look and feel of Aronofsky's film, essential elements for entering the characters' painful world and appreciating their respective journeys.
Don't be fooled by the independent film label here. From the get-go, this power-driven DTS-HD Master Audio track grabs you by the throat and thrusts you into the action with as much force as a high-tech, multi-million-dollar adventure flick. Any atmosphere that's lacking on the video end is made up in spades with this immersive, marvelously detailed lossless mix that features plenty of dynamic surround activity, palpable bass, and surprisingly fine nuances. Traffic sounds, kids playing in the street, and seagulls on the beach all provide subtle yet essential ambience that makes the rowdy scenes more sonically effective. For whenever a wrestling match begins or we enter the psychedelic strip club, strong waves of well-defined sound wrap around us. Cheers, taunts, and body slams are all crisp and weighty, and the pulsing beat of the bar music is marked by excellent range and fidelity.
Dialogue is appropriately anchored up front, and almost all of Rourke's mumbled line readings are easily understood. The music score quietly punctuates the drama, and Bruce Springsteen's title song possesses crystalline tones that showcase the smoky vocals and understated accompaniment. Such top quality audio really enhances our involvement in the story, and makes this small film often seem larger than life.
Extras are slim, but meaty. The only real omission is an audio commentary, but the release doesn't suffer for it.
'The Wrestler' heralds a long overdue return to form for actor Mickey Rourke. Darren Aronofsky's warts-and-all look at a brutal form of entertainment and the price it exacts on those who are slaves to it packs an emotional punch and yields unexpected rewards. Solid video, audio, and supplements heighten the impact of this excellent film. Highly recommended.
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