The surprises never stop coming in The Wrestler the closing night film of the New York Film Festival. The movie's very existence is a surprise for those who know director Darren Aronofsky as the visually florid director of feverish movies like Pi and Requiem for a Dream. A stripped-bare, raw and honest drama set in New Jersey, The Wrestler is as down-to-earth as Aronofsky's last film, The Fountain, was spacey.
The next surprise is Mickey Rourke, an actor who became known as much for his off-screen bad behavior as for his impressive roles in 80s films like Diner and Rumble Fish. Even his fine performance in Sin City can't compare to Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a professional wrestler 20 years past his prime who still attends matches on the weekends to pay the bills not covered by his day job in a grocery store warehouse. Randy's body is all rough planes and scar tissue, and each new injury-- we see two wrestling matches in exquisite, brutal detail-- is just an added layer on top of decades worth of pain, both physical and emotional.
Randy lives alone in a trailer that's frequently locked by the landlord when he can't pay the rent, and he spends what's left of his extra income on lap dances from his favorite stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who uses her body to make a living much in the way Randy does, and is also learning how much harder it gets with age. After he suffers a heart attack Randy decides, at Cassidy's encouragement, to get in touch with his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood); she brushes him off at first but eventually warms to her father, as Randy comes to terms with leaving wrestling behind for good.
It's surprising how funny the movie can be, especially seeing the wrestlers plan out their moves together and talk afterward in the locker room, saying things like "I hope you were OK with that table hit." It's surprising how well Aronofsky captures the working-class milieu without an ounce of condescension, the chilly New Jersey locations echoing the resignation of its characters. It's surprising how subtly the professions of stripping and wrestling come to emerge as twinned metaphors, the darkest parts of the human brain put on display as entertainment.
But the biggest surprise, and the one earning all the attention, is Randy, tender and resilient and as fully-formed as any screen character has ever been. A lonely figure surrounded by fans and admiring up-and-comers, Randy is the broken old man with a mane of long blond hair, holding on to the past because he has nothing left. As Randy makes his way toward happiness outside of the ring, spending a day at the beach with his daughter and innocently flirting with the old lady customers when he starts work as the deli counter, Rourke lights up the entire movie. And as things start to spiral down again, Rourke avoids begging for pity, simply bringing the audience along as Randy embarks on his doomed final match.
The parallel stories of Mickey and Randy, each former pros trying to get back on track, are not lost on the audience, but aren't necessary to get it either. The movie is, simply, stellar, an American parable and moving drama found in an unlikely place. Everyone has outdone themselves, including Wood and Tomei in their supporting roles. The movie comes out December 19; you must see it.
Below are some excerpts from the press conference that followed the screening. Left out are a lot of the jokes, which don't transcribe well to print, and the camaraderie among Tomei, Aronofsky and Rourke. Oh, and the prolonged ovation given the entire bunch by the critics, the most applause I've seen this crowd give anything all year.
Darren, how did this project come about?
Aronofsky: When I graduated film school I made a list of ideas for feature films, and one of them was called The Wrestler. It was based on the idea that there are so many boxing movies that it's basically a film genre, but no one had done a serious film about wrestling. There's a lot of reasons for that [laughs]. So it sat on my hard drive for years, and about six years ago me and Scott Franklin, who was a producer on one of my earlier films, started talking about it, and Scott turned out to be a bigger fan of wrestling than I was when he was a kid. And eventually the idea of Mickey Rourke came up.
Rourke: We had a pretty extensive rehearsal period. I didn't know much about, or anything, about wrestling at all. [Darren] had a ring put up in his office, and every day for two hours Darren made me go to wrestling practice with these guys. At first it was really hard, and I didn't get it because I was formally trained in a different sport. I would have been better off if I never had a boxing lesson. I broke every rule that I was taught. With wrestling it's all choreographed like a ballet, like a dance. You work with the other person so you can pull off something that looks magical. but what I wasn't prepared for is that you can actually get hurt. I got hurt more in the three months doing wrestling than I did in 16 years doing boxing. I think I got 3 MRIs in two months. I have newfound respect for this as a sport. [...] I was so glad when this movie was ever. It's probably the best movie I've ever made, and the hardest movie I've ever made, and I was so goddamn thankful the day we were done with it.
Marisa, how did you prepare for your role?
Marisa: I was just listening to Mickey, and thinking there were so many feelings that were similar. Although Darren did not put up a stripper pole in his office for me. I had to cram it into I guess a week. Also, I thought, it's not really dancing, and it's just about how you look. Then later I came to find out that, just as he was saying, you work off the adrenaline of the audience. And that there was a craft to it, and a strength to it. It's difficult. I wound up really enjoying it.
Mickey, how do you feel about this as a comeback?
Rourke: You know, if I knew 15 years ago that it was going to take me 15 years to get back in the saddle, to work again, because of the way I handled things, I really would have handled things differently. I just didn't have the tools. Doing things differently this time around, understanding what it is to be a professional, to be responsible, to be consistent. Those were things that weren't in my vocabulary back then. They, for me, didn't come easy. I didn't want to change until I lost everything, and I realized, man, you'd better change. Either you change and you move on with life or you're just a piece of shit. I thought it was a weakness for change. I was too proud to change, but I had to change. I'm OK with it now. Yeah, it took me 15, 16, 17 years out of the game, but it's really nice that I can come back and work with these people here. Moderator Richard Pena: Anyone who loves film is very grateful that you are here.