The Wrestler strikes me as a very calculated creation. After making a splash in the American independent scene with Pi, director Darren Aronofsky bucked offers to make more mainstream works to create Requiem for a Dream, a film as rigorously—and extremely—stylized as his lower budget feature debut. The seeming make-or-break point came with the production debacle of The Fountain, when Brad Pitt dropped out during pre-production, being replaced by Hugh Jackman and a significantly downsized budget which kept the scale of this very unique time traveling romantic melodrama at a level of disgruntled creative ingenuity, damning it as an oddity stuck between the two supposed poles of American cinema, mainstream Hollywood and independent film.
So now along comes The Wrestler, the first film of the director’s not written to some degree by himself, the first not shot by the excellent DP Matthew Libatique, and a film that seems to cry out for future funding: look at me, I can make a straight-forward, heartfelt, edgy but sentimental, character driven film! It is an experiment in convention, really, Aronofsky taking his mad and maddening tales of dedicated sinceres bordering on manically desperate, and tampers down the more idiosyncratic subjects of math savants, squalid, didactic druggies, and cosmic lovers into the falling star arc of a professional wrestler (Mickey Rourke) at the tail end of his career, one heart attack in, almost broke, and without a love or his daughter.
Compared to Aronofsky’s past work, The Wrestler is normal incarnate, trading in the symmetrical, controlled rigor of the filmmaker’s last two films for a semi-convincing handheld, gritty-blue lower-class aesthetic, and lets Rourke reap in the pathos of a character who is so good-hearted and warm it is hard to believe his dead-beat reputation. Despite this incongruity of the wrestler’s character with his past, it is where the film shines, for as The Wrestler submerges the underlying thematics of Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay—the fakery of the wrestling world that has real physical repercussions, and from that the blurred line between really acting and really feeling in all other matters of life and relationships—what does come to light is the compassion in Rourke’s fabulous performance, trying his chunky, muscle-y darndest, faced with the tritely written vitriolic hatred of his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and the gradual warming and affection of a stripper friend (Marisa Tomei).
All is well and good, if entirely unsurprising in Aronofsky’s uninflected execution and Siegel’s under-nuanced script (the relationship with and characterization of the daughter substitutes instant romance and spontaneous hysterics for of the realism afforded Rourke). It is actually the professional wrestling angle, as arbitrarily crow-barred into the film as it is, that gives The Wrestler it’s punch and its greater interest. That Rourke’s warmth comes through the strongest in the camaraderie and kindness expressed between wrestlers behind the scenes and between the wrestlers and their fans suggests a curious dialectic on human relationships running through the film, one not nearly as simple as the man preferring the orchestrated success of the ring to the ungainly relationships he has outside of it. The film never takes this as far as it could go, though it sincerely tries by giving Marisa Tomei’s stripper a similar struggle, but again the daughter plotline proves the weakest, unable to pick up The Wrestler’s thread of people, uh, wrestling with the face—both ugly and heartfelt—they have to put on to survive, and the one they live with out of the public light. Solid, earnest, and of some interest, Aronofsky’s film nevertheless risks nothing other than the accusation of industrial safety; but if this is what a film compromised to make a bid for a more complex and personal work looks like, there really is little to object to.