Randy "The Ram" Robinson brings a razor blade to a wrestling match in one of The Wrestler's first scenes. Initially, director Darren Aronofsky watches Randy (Mickey Rourke) from a distance, his camera taking in the athlete's weathered but expansive musculature. Right before the bout, Aronofsky comes in for a close-up of Randy hiding a piece of razor on his person. During the bruising, blustery, low-rent match, Randy secretly uses the blade not against his opponent, but on himself, so his bloody forehead can increase the drama and showmanship of his preordained victory.
Randy's thin gash to his own brow marks just the first wound he inflicts on himself in The Wrestler. Randy ruled the ring as a pro wrestler in the 1980s, but 20 years later, his beefy, abused physique serves as a monument to his punishing profession and poor choices in his personal life. At one point, Randy describes himself as "an old, broken-down piece of meat," and the scrutiny The Wrestler brings to Randy's flesh elevates a potentially sentimental drama about a washed-up palooka to a showcase for an enormously compelling piece of acting. You can't tear your eyes away.
The choice of Rourke, another kind of ravaged '80s relic, is such a master stroke of casting that it's difficult to tell exactly where the actor leaves off and the character begins. Rourke's hard-living lifestyle, including a stint as a boxer in the early 1990s, took such a toll that he's almost unrecognizable today. With swollen features, his face almost seems to rest lower on his skull compared to his pinched handsomeness in breakthrough roles in Diner and Rumble Fish. He's also massively pumped up with long, platinum hair, making him look like an anatomical study from Rodin or Carravagio, only accompanied by a 1980s hair-metal soundtrack.
With real professional grapplers in supporting roles, The Wrestler shows how the mountainous performers (mal)treat themselves. Randy buys a pharmaceutical counter's worth of steroids and other drugs from a peer, and in a lighter moment later, we note with amusement his fussy, pre-match routine. He reclines in a tanning bed, dyes his locks with a hairnet and shaves his armpits. In the film's most agonizing scene, Randy agrees to a "hardcore" match with an opponent (Dylan Summers, who wrestles under the name "Necro Butcher") and ends up on the receiving end of barbed wire and a staple gun.
Following the match, Randy suffers a heart attack and subsequent surgery, and faces the possibility of life without steroids or wrestling. Rourke doesn't avoid pathos in portraying Randy's attempts to put his life together, but he generally plays Randy with more restraint and humility than his leading roles from the 1980s, when he didn't shy away from showboating. Some of the sweetest moments show him playing mentor to the younger generation of wrestlers, offering hugs and encouraging words to fierce galoots in mohawks. The Wrestler generally supports the idea that professional fighters purge their hot tempers in the ring, and are pussycats outside it.
In tried-and-true boxing movie formula, The Wrestler builds up the possibility of a big fight, as Randy contemplates a rematch with his 1980s nemesis, "The Ayatollah," even though it could kill him. That seems the easier task than holding down a menial job and renewing ties with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). The Wrestler rigs their scenes a little, since we only see his vulnerability and her hostility, and can only imagine the years of bad parenting that turned his daughter against him.
He takes advice from Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper who tries to be supportive while keeping customers like Randy at arm's length. Tomei has several nude scenes, and at one point, Aronofsky's camera follows her from dressing room to stripper pole, in a mirror of an earlier shot following Randy into the arena. Clearly they're kindred spirits, each struggling to make a living that involves showing off their bodies while past their prime, and in essence, playing fantasy figures for an increasingly disinterested audience.
The Wrestler isn't as stylistically provocative as Aronofsky's other films, although cinematographer Maryse Alberti gives a saturated quality to the film's color, so the scenes look credibly grubby while being more vivid than real life. Plus, Randy's semi-masochistic physical trials make the film nearly as harrowing as Requiem for a Dream's nightmarish portrait of self-destructive junkies. Wrestling may be faked, but Rourke's portrayal of Randy's ordeals feels as real as it gets.