Mickey Rourke never meets people in offices. He picked a restaurant, his turf, when he heard this “cult, independent, arty-farty kinda guy” wanted to make a film with him.
“He sort of walked across the street like his balls were too big for his pants,” recalls Rourke of Darren Aronofsky in The Wrestler’s DVD interview. “Then he just started saying, ‘You’ve ruined your career for the last 15 years and I can’t raise a dime on your name. If I do this movie with you, you’re gonna listen to everything I tell you, you’re gonna do everything I say and you can never disrespect me in front of the crew. Oh, and I can’t pay you.’ I thought, ‘This is the kinda guy I want to work with.’”
Back in the ’80s, (real) actor Mickey Rourke and (fake) wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson were megastars. Blurred together 20 years later by director Aronofsky, they prove that dying embers burn hottest. The stringy blond hair, the slabs of muscle and the nuclear tan are chemical illusions, but Rourke’s Ram is the real deal. Talk about vice and versa.
Tweaking the script with lines from his own life (“This is what I would say, these are things I have said”), Rourke made it personal. Battered, broke and broken-down, the ageing wrestler reaches out for a human touch from the only two people in his life: pro pole-dancer Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). A blurred memory of itself, Rourke’s tasty face etches more into his character than any line of dialogue could.
That Oscar snub validates it completely: Rourke is staggering. Funny, tender, brutal, heartbreaking… his performance is built out of a million tiny, delicate moments: whether playing Nintendo with the local kids, signing old VHS tapes for even older fans or resting his hearing aid on the bedside table. Best of all? For all the autobiog, Rourke never eclipses The Ram. And in the disc’s remarkable 42-minute Making Of doc, Within The Ring, we see exactly how Aronofsky hammered the performance out of him.
Seconds before rolling cameras on an emotional scene between Rourke and Wood, Aronofsky decides to tell the actor his beloved dog had died. Rourke is devastated. He nails the first take. He nails the second take. On take three, Aronofsky looks at the actor: “Mickey, I want you to really bring it.” Rourke: “Did Loki really die?” Aronofsky: “Do it for Loki.” Rourke: “Fuck...”
It gets even better. Right in the middle of a wrenching father/daughter meltdown, Aronofsky walks straight on to camera. Grabs Rourke by the lapels. Then by the face. Stares him in the eyes. Shakes him. Then walks back out of shot without saying a word, letting the scene continue as if nothing had happened.
As a filmmaker, despite the fact his last three films are about doomed love, Aronofsky’s brain throbs harder than his heart. No audio commentary here, but watch him at work on the documentary and you see a meticulous artist certain of everything. Elsewhere, we meet the real-life wrestlers (Tommy Rotten, Necro Butcher and Lex Lethal) who helped hurl Rourke around the ring.
Then Aronofsky’s dad pops up to recall the day he took his son to see his first Hulk Hogan match. It’s a nice memory: after watching Hogan bodyslam his opponent off the turnbuckle, little Darren immediately turned round and voiced his suspicion that the whole fight was a sham. And while Rourke’s stunt double picks bits of broken glass out of his bleeding back (“I’ve learned to make pain my friend”), Aronofsky is keenly constructing the hand-in-themeat- grinder scene. But even when you do feel Aronofsky pulling the strings, Randy’s ritual of suffering is all affection and humanity. Of course, this Sacrificial Ram doesn’t get it when Cassidy tells him to see The Passion Of The Christ. (Cassidy: “It’s amazing, they throw everything at him. Rocks, stones, arrows!” Randy: “Tough dude...”)
Given little to do by the script, Tomei’s incredible performance morphs her own character into a moving, fully believable soulmate to Rourke’s. Both sell their fading bodies as primal fantasies for an audience desperate to believe. Their names aren’t real but they are. Love, hate, wrestling, stripping, movies... It’s all drama that’s fake and real at the same time. Somehow, The Wrestler seems to flex effortlessly with these double-meanings. Because as it tears through the visceral details of ring combat, Aronofsky’s film also digs brutally into the clichés of its predictable parable with unflinching honesty.
Shot in 35 days, for $6m, edited on a single Mac, Aronofsky’s fourth film is the kind of movie you just don’t see that often. Minimal story, maximum emotion, character-motored, stripped down to its subtleties… Aronofsky channels the spirit of ’70s New Hollywood, dirty and downbeat, pure and poetic, directly into his picture. Manly but messedup, The Ram is heir to both Scorsese’s vintage loners and the soulful underdog of the first Rocky.
Shivering with him in the barren New Jersey nowheresville, Aronofsky’s hand-held camera follows Rourke every step of the way. It can’t leave him. Easy to see why.