Much like Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler arrives on a wave of publicity that means that it may get a bigger audience. Fortunately like Slumdog the publicity is once again warranted, someone has actually made a good film about wrestling (which unfortunately renders part of the joke about Barton Fink moot, but the Coen’s are hardly going to worry about that).
The reason that it succeeds is down to the fact that it obeys the first rule of sports films – we should learn everything we need to know about the principal character from the sport itself, whatever happens in between should just be a means of reinforcing what we have learnt. This is why Raging Bull is a great boxing film whilst Rocky is a great film that happens to contain boxing (for reference, Rocky contains nearly twice as many boxing scenes than Raging Bull, but it’s the training montage we remember – Raging Bull is all about the ring). The scenes inside the ring and backstage occupy only the briefest period of time, but remain the thing you remember about the film afterwards. Everyone knows that the game is a fix, the sense of camaraderie between the wrestlers and the terrible punishment they choose to have inflicted on them tells you more about the damaged people this film is about than any amount of drama in-between bouts, which isn’t to denigrate the rest of the film in any way.
Likewise, Mickey Rourke’s contribution to the film cannot be overlooked. Part child, part wounded animal, he dominates the film in the same way that Day-Lewis did There Will Be Blood last year. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else being able to fit the role to the same extent that he does. Never off the screen for more than a minute (and always the focus of the film) he presents a man stuck in the wrong time, not trying to relive his glory days but just trying to live the only way he knows. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch.
Whilst Rourke does dominate proceedings mention should also be given to Marisa Tomei as the lap dancer who strikes up a tentative relationship with him (but again is bound to a life that she can’t explain to others) and Evan Rachel Wood who despite only having three scenes in the film carries off what is a vital role to the plot. In many ways both of these show that Rourke has the least showy role in the film, all of the visible acting is done in the ring (all by Rourke himself), everything outside has a documentary approach.
Which brings me to the one caveat I need to give about this film, as good as it is (and it is nothing short of superb) it’s also as depressing as hell. There are moments of comedy, but these are sparse and usually being used as a mask by one character or another. The documentary feel underlines this (originally the film was to be higher budget, but studio worries forced Aronofsky to take a lower key approach) with much of the film in close up on peoples faces as they react to what is happening. The audience I saw this with seemed to be expecting something more akin to a comedy starring The Rock (a lot of mumbles during the credits), so be careful of the advertising once again.