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Robin 'Randy the Ram' Ramzinski (Mickey Rourke) was once a star professional wrestler, but after twenty years his star doesn’t shine quite so bright. Randy spends his weekends performing in a much smaller arena, and spends the rest of his time working at a grocery store, neither of which quite covers the cost of his Jersey trailer home. After a nearly fatal heart attack Randy is forced into retirement. He tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), and awkwardly attempts to romance an ageing stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), but nothing can keep him from a possibly fatal journey back to the ring.

Wrestler, The
Even with only four films to his credit over the last decade, Darren Aronofsky has quickly become one of filmdom’s most exciting filmmakers. Aronofsky struck hard with his first film Pi, but it wasn’t until his second film that most of us realized how provocative and distinct his talent was. Nine years on Requiem for a Dream is still an incendiary work, and likely one of the most underrated artistic achievements of my lifetime. Aronofsky didn’t quite change the language of film, but he definitely made an imprint. His follow up was ambitious beyond his means, and The Fountain was shelved for years. When it was finally finished and released it divided audiences and critics, and had no real impact on the box office. I believe that The Fountain will find its audience someday, and the relative success of The Wrestler in 2008 will likely help.

The Wrestler’s shortcomings mostly come out of expectations laid by Aronofsky’s other films, two of which ( Pi and The Fountain) told refreshingly original stories, and all of which told their stories in refreshingly original fashions. The Wrestler covers a specific subject not already drilled into the ground by other filmmakers, but the washed up athlete angle is very old hat. The Wrestler stands well ahead of dreck like the Rocky sequels, and at least matches the efforts of Ryoo Seung-Wan’s Crying Fist, but it’s still a story most of us have heard before. Aronofsky’s cinema verite choices are great when you consider they’re unlike anything he’s ever done, but bereft of the director’s usual chutzpah the somewhat stale story doesn’t have any additional novelty to sell it to the less open members of the audience.

Wrestler, The
Still, the film worked for me, mostly because it is refreshingly low-key without ever being dull, and because the acting quality verges on intoxicating. The pseudo-documentary style feels quite authentic, and the natural production features an intuitive look at the human condition. Aronofsky doesn’t let the filmmaking get in the way of the storytelling, even going as far as to take lengths to make the audience forget about the filmmaking all together. Having a top form Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei on staff certainly helps. The only chink in the authenticity armour is Evan Rachel Wood, who under almost any other circumstance would be hailed for her performance, but in this context seems a bit overwhelming.

I’m still not positive whose Oscar-nominated performance I prefer: Rourke’s Randy Robinson or Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk. Rourke’s performance is more subtle and more effortless, but it’s also tailored towards his strengths, while Penn’s performance is largely nothing like any of his other roles. Since I can’t arrive at a decision right now I’d rather point some love towards Marisa Tomei, who besides being good enough to be topless for much of her screen time, matches Rourke punch for punch, creating an even more affecting character. She’s probably my choice for 2008’s best actress based on the small collection of nominated films I saw for the year.

Wrestler, The
The next paragraph features some spoilers.

Here’s my question for those that already saw the film: does The Wrestler have an ending? Is it fair for Aronofsky to leave so much unsaid, or is he playing it safe, avoiding the happy ending that could make the story schmaltzy, or the sad ending that could make it too melancholy? Or is the ambiguous ending a cop out ‘art house’ touch? I’ve only seen the film once now, so I don’t have the answer, but I am relatively positive that Aronofsky and writer Robert D. Siegel didn’t write themselves into a corner.

Video


The Wrestler is shot using what Aronofsky refers to as a ‘pro-active documentary’ style. It’s rough and far removed from the fantastical cleanliness of The Fountain, but handsome in its own respect. Grain is omnipresent in varying degrees depending on lighting and movement, but none of it appears to be a result of compression, it is a result of the Super 16 film stock. As my colleague Chris Gould mentioned in his review, Super 16 is comparable to high-definition video in image resolution, so there isn’t a lack of realistic details on the disc. Hi-def fanatics won’t be too excited, but it pushes things beyond standard definition capabilities. Aronofsky doesn’t paint with light like he did with The Fountain, and he doesn’t go out of his way to de-saturate the colours like he did in Requiem for a Dream, but there are a few impressive hues on display in this largely naturalistic transfer.

Wrestler, The

Audio


To complement its cinema verite visuals The Wrestler features a less than overwhelming DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, one that is almost entirely devoted to the centre channel. Dialogue and most sound effects rarely leave the middle of the mix, even stuff like flying geese (which always seem to be flying over Evan Rachel Woods’ house), and passing cars. Strong examples of rear and stereo effects are mostly delegated to the wrestling scenes, which occasionally feature aggressive crowd noises, especially during the lead-up to Rourke’s final match. Besides these small occasions the brunt force of the uncompressed mix is devoted to the music, though usually not Clint Mansell’s understated score, which is a far cry from his aggressive Requiem for a Dream score, or his majestic Fountain score. If the music is going to impress it’s usually catalogue stuff, like the ‘80s rock that precedes the wrestling matches or the bassy hip-hop that accompanies the strip club scenes.

Extras


Aronofsky’s discs are almost always satisfying, but not fantastic, and The Wrestler continues the trend. Ideal someone would’ve talked the director and Rourke into recording a commentary, but ‘Within the Ring’ will have to do for our behind the scenes information. This forty-two minute featurette moves pretty quickly, but covers all the bases, including inception, writing, production, casting, difficulties in working on such a tight schedule and with such a fiery actor, stunts, and music. The featurette also takes the time to cover some of the less obvious aspects of professional wrestling. Despite his art house credentials, Aronofsky knows his rough and tumble stuff.

Next is a twenty-six minute wrestler’s round table, featuring a room full of the real guys talking about the movie. I haven’t watched professional wrestling since the ‘80s, but these guys are so ‘classic’ even I recognize them. It’s not entirely surprising how accurate the film’s portrayal is, but it’s still pretty touching to watch these warrior types gently breaking down the reality of the fictional story. The featurette apparently shouldn’t have been presented in 16x9 because a lot of text is chopped off.

The disc is completed with a music video for Bruce Springsteen’s song, ‘The Wrestler’, and a series of Fox HD trailers.

Wrestler, The

Overall


The Wrestler is nothing like anything else in modern maverick Darren Aronofsky’s catalogue, and that’s what makes it special. You’ve seen the story before, but you’ve never seen it through the eyes of the hip-hop filmmaker’s eyes, and you’ve never seen it enacted by Mickey Rourke and Marissa Tomei at the top of their games. I’m not in love with the film, but I can imagine I might be with subsequent viewings. The Blu-ray image and audio qualities aren’t going to blow any of you away given the low-budget aspirations, but I have no complaints either.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.


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