Hollywood loves a great comeback story. Let’s not kid ourselves, everyone loves a great comeback story. There hasn’t been a comeback story in Hollywood like Mickey Rourke’s in a very long time, and the media is eating it up. Once touted as Hollywood’s pretty boy who could act—the next Marlon Brando or James Dean—Rourke literally walked away from Hollywood just as his career was peaking to become a professional boxer. A few years later, after some arrests for domestic violence and DUIs, and several surgeries to fix severe damage to his face from the years of boxing, Rourke decided to give Hollywood another try, and has now been fully embraced again with his critically-acclaimed and Oscar-nominated performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.
Just think…in less than a month, Mickey Rourke could have an Oscar for Best Actor. Only in Hollywood.
It’s almost not even fair, though, for the other four actors who are up against Rourke in the category. For Sean Penn (Milk), Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), they each had to get to know a character that was foreign to them, invent pasts and behaviors and build layers of a person they didn’t know when they were first handed their script. Mickey Rourke, for his character in The Wrestler, had a head start because he already knew his character. He was the character. The lines he speaks may not be his, the clothes he wears may not be from his closet, and the people he interacts with may be actors playing other people, but it doesn’t matter. He knows this person. He knows this life. And that is why this performance and this film feels, at times, more real than any documentary. And that’s the only reason why it works.
It may be too easy to just write this film off as Mickey Rourke playing himself, or using some unbelievable parallels in his own life to bring a depth of performance to the screen, but, as an audience member, you just can’t help but feel it. The Wrestler is the story of a has-been professional wrestler who can’t let go of his glory days, and has nothing in his life except his moments in the ring, the cheers of the crowd, and the camaraderie of his fellow wrestlers. While it is somewhat beautiful to love something as much as this character loves what he does, he is so desperate to cling to those fleeting moments in the ring which define him that he is totally ignorant of the fact that life outside of the ring has passed him by, costing him nearly everything he should, could and would ever love.
While it doesn’t seem to immediately parallel Mickey Rourke’s life, that of a has-been pro wrestler, there is a desperation to the character that Rourke himself has spoken of being drawn to and understanding intrinsically. When you’ve been to the bottom and lost everything, when everyone’s turned their back on you, and all you’ve got is your belief in yourself, that’s what gets you out of bed in the morning. And this is a character that has only one thing in his life and he’s willing to do anything to keep it going, to not lose it. And Mickey Rourke’s performance in this film echoes this same sentiment, the sense of giving it all he’s got, because he’s truly got nothing to lose. When you see an actor literally leaving blood, sweat and tears on screen for a role, you can’t help but be moved. This is an emotional, physical and psychic commitment on the part of Mickey Rourke, and he left it all out there. It’s impossible not to notice. When you can sense that an actor who has nothing to lose is playing a character who has nothing to lose, there is a magic that happens, a desperate realism that binds audience to actor, making the story feel like a personal narrative, not a concocted Hollywood script.
As for the rest of the film, director Darren Aronofsky doesn’t get in the way of himself or of Rourke and just allows the camera to shoot. Most of the film is shot with a hand-held camera, providing a naturalistic, gritty feel that only magnifies the sense of isolation. There is not much of a story to speak of, this is a character study, through and through, but the arc of the narrative is a familiar one, simple and sometimes a bit too easy. Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood provide solid counter-balances to Rourke’s burly and lost man-child, but he only finds real chemistry with the other wrestlers, and the best scenes are the wrestling matches and the bonding moments he shares with his fellow “competitors.” This is when he’s truly in his element and we see who this person really is, not the hollow shell who exists in our world—the real world.
The Wrestler is one of those films that grows on you the more you let it sink in. It is a simple film, but the character is such a tragic, pathetic and heartbreaking one that you can’t help but feel for him, in one way or another. There could be no better role for a disgraced, outcast former Hollywood heartthrob to stamp his entry back into Hollywood’s good graces, with the ultimate redemption possibly around the corner.
Even Hollywood couldn’t have scripted this one better.