"Witness the Resurrection of Mickey Rourke!" says the prize-like banner of a quote in the upper right corner of the poster for The Wrestler. Underneath is the image of a blond-locked Rourke, leaning for life-support on the ropes of a wrestling ring. Just above his head are the bleached-bright lights of the ring, forming somewhat of a half-circle, and creating a symbolic image of a crown.
Nope, I'm not being very subtle about the direction I'm heading in here, and I don't think director Darren Aronofsky intended to be either. Because, indeed, the final shot of The Wrestler is as close to a spiritual sports metaphor for human resurrection that you'll ever see. As Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Rourke) climbs those corner ropes one last time in order to lay down his signature "Ram Jam" pin move on rival nemesis The Ayatollah, we're uncomfortably aware that he's "burning it at both ends" with a ticker that's about to explode. Ram takes flight anyway, arms extending Christ-like, soaring above the camera and our eyes in a moment that cuts to black with cathartic punctuation.
This Jesus stuff ain't no coincidence. Earlier in the film, in a moment feeling so much like a left-field non sequitir you can feel the alarms going off in your head signaling PAY ATTENTION NOW!, Ram's hip-pocket stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tome) quotes him some dialogue from The Passion of the Christ and says, "they just beat him up for two hours straight, and he takes it... just like you." Yep, pretty much, and that's not a bad summation of what The Wrestler is either. But unlike the knives-out masochism of Lars Von Trier and his always dead heroines, Aronofsky doesn't want you going home a misanthrope. Sad, yes, but not resentful. (The Wrestler kinda plays like an indie-cool weepie for hipsters.)
If ever there was a movie that could scare our future young adults into choosing the option of college after high school, The Wrestler might just be the one. Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do, and I got nothing but great respect for the people who grind out long hours on the shittiest of jobs, but you can't get much more humiliating than being over the age of thirty-five and having to strip or wear neon green tights for a living. Add to that the onset of "bitch tits", being turned down by college kids for a lap dance, playing video games on an 8-bit Nintendo, working at a deli counter, liking Ratt, etc., and you're beyond a mid-life crisis, you're at the wrong end of a life lived at the limbs of decadence and hedonism. And what that looks like, what it exactly looks like, is fried-out suicide blond hair tips and a can of spray-on tan.
Some critics have argued that The Wrestler is overly-dreary and hopeless, and since we're considering the work of a director who made one of the dreariest (and worst) films of the last ten years in Requiem for a Dream, giving somebody the benefit of the doubt on an opinion like that would not be unfair. It's hard to argue with that viewpoint after watching a scene from The Wrestler like the one of a fan club gathering for ex-wrestlers to sign autographs and meet fans. The sequence is a pure depressive slide down a slope of concrete bumps. Old, worn-out men in a run-down rec center, sitting at card tables with stacks of VHS tapes for sale and nobody around with an inch of curiousity left to care. When Aronofsky's camera follows Ram's line of sight to a urine bag hanging out of a fellow wrestler's pants, flashbacks of a pasty Ellen Burstyn and a sweaty Marlon Wayans tease your gag reflex.
But Aronofsky's grown up, and with the underrated The Fountain and, now, The Wrestler under his belt, I've gone from passionately disliking the guy (I really f*cking hate Pi and Requiem for a Dream) to wanting to keep a heartfelt curious eye on his career. It may sound odd, but while watching The Wrestler, I felt a bit of a genuine Norma Rae-style working class hardship coming from both Rourke's performance and Aronofky's direction. The pair collaborated to achieve a unique blend of bittersweet pleasantness that truly hangs around once you've left the theater.
Much has been made of Mickey Rourke's autobiographical-channeling performance, but it's the kind of award-season hype that finally feels validated. Perhaps it's true that there isn't much "acting" going on here, but I was fully seduced by Rourke's body, voice, face, walk, grunts. I won't deny that that may just be the signs of a healthy crush because I still have the sound of The Ram's slamming elbow pads ringing in my ears. And to me, right now, that's the sound of "awesome".