Darren Aronofsky is from the generation of filmmakers
that struck gold right when I thought I was the shit. His early years brought
an archetype of independent filmmaking – Pi. Then an arm-biting, emotional, car
crash – Requiem for a Dream. With these two movies alone under his belt, he was
being defined by his ambition. Then he directed The Fountain.

The Wrestler is Aronofsky’s response to himself. It’s a
story we’ve seen before but never thought we’d see from him. It’s modest,
understated, brutally hands-off, and altogether contrary to the aspiration that
defined his other works. If The Fountain was self-indulgent, The Wrestler is other-indulgent.

Mickey Rourke gets slugged, cut, injected, slammed, and
has one all-too scarring relationship with a construction appliance. And he
does most of it to himself. Be assured this is no rope-a-dope. His back is
stapled to the rails because he has stood on his own two feet long enough, not
because there’s some underlying plan, some greater ambition. Rourke embodies
the role in the same way he does the neon tights – with physical excess,
palpable discomfort, an unshakeable reputation, and a fistful of empathy. His
life-worn face is in nearly every scene and yet it’s no accident that for the
first few shots it’s shrouded in darkness and facing the wall.

Yes, he’s a regular at the neighborhood strip club and
hasn’t spoken to his daughter in years. Yes, there’s a “get back into top form”
sequence. Yes, he stubbornly goes against doctor’s orders. Caveman though he
may look, there’s no effort to reinvent fire here. Aronofsky steps off the
director’s chair, embraces a few key conventions, and let’s a once-great actor
give the most personally defining performance of the year.

When people lose their jobs, have to rearrange their
lives, and feel the effects of proverbial bad times, it’s not a movie about a
South American revolutionary or an Indian boy wonder on a game show or the
socio-political turmoil of a Catholic school that people are going to lend their
sympathy to; but it might well be the movie about an old professional wrestler,
painful and determined. Mickey Rourke is the real Cinderella man.

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