Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky's new film "The Wrestler" has the peculiar ability to search out unpredictable emotions within an entirely predictable plot. The, let's say, foreseeable nature of the movie is not really a weakness, though. The story is so familiar that the life of washed up weekend-warrior Randy 'The Ram' Robinson unfolds as a series of inevitable episodes that he, like the most tragic heroes, cannot escape. The Ram is played by the himself-tragic Mickey Rourke, and it is his sincerity, both in humor and pain, that carries the film.

The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and unfortunately this prevents its lead performance from also winning the Best Actor award. It is obvious, at least to me, that Mr. Rourke should have received the award instead. In a film that plays on archetypes and well-known structures, Mr. Rourke gives his character three dimensions in the best possible way. He is The Ram, the respected wrestler and fading role model. He is Randy, the guy trying to collect the pieces of his various failed relationships. Beneath this he is Robin, his real name, his sad effort to make ends meet by taking on a job at the deli counter. While you may know exactly what will happen the first time you see the whirring blade of the meat slicer, Robin's "Alright, Darlings" and "Howdy, Spring Chickens" over the counter are unexpected and disarmingly funny. Of course his daughter won't take him back, but Randy's eyes are giant, deep holes that throw myriad emotions around some otherwise overwrought scenes. It is clear from the very beginning that The Ram is physically doomed, but on the way to the ring his autographs and handshakes, or his two attempts at dancing, are always a joy to watch.

As a portrait of this fated man, the film works well. As a story, it is Mr. Rourke that supplies every bit of the nuance. His daughter is over-played by Evan Rachel Wood, who, according to her make-up, is the poor-man's Jenna Malone. Comedian Todd Barry puts in a nice performance as Wayne, the grocery store manager, and Marisa Tomei is (again archetypally) a stripper with a heart of gold (or, at least, her own life to live). Other than this, it seems like every other character is a brief wrestler or child, all reverent to The Ram. And when The Ram enters the ring, Aronofsky shines.

The film is almost entirely shot hand-held and grainy, but Aronofsky blocks the wrestling sequences with great clarity and the action is better for it. There is never a moment of confusion, and a sense of space is always present. The action filmmakers of today could stand to take a few cues from Aronofsky's camera. He is mobile without being shaky, and packed with movement without making me car-sick. It is easy for the hand-held camera to make a film feel like a point-and-shoot amatuer hour, but Aronofsky avoids this with well-planned composition and some frame tricks that allow the camera vertical movement. A stationary, omniscient point of view mixes with a walking, following camera and the result is a film that feels like it has two or three layered perspectives. The space inside the ring is brutal and encompassing, the space just outside the ring is comedically (or sadly) small, and the camera, like the story, always seems to know The Ram's fate ahead of time.

On a strictly personal level, it is cool that Mr. Aronofsky can make "The Fountain," a science fiction fable and gigantic box office flop, and follow it up with a film that is comparatively tiny in scale and win the Golden Lion. Four films into his career, he has finally managed to temper his wandering philosophy and often brutal stories with enough (if not quite equal parts) humor and personality. This will be the Aronofsky film I return to with the most enthusiasm, and I am glad to have the chants of "Ram Jam! Ram Jam! Ram Jam!" replace the closing slogan of "Requiem For A Dream": "Butt to butt! Butt to butt! Butt to butt!"

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