It's easy to laugh at Mickey Rourke
. He's a has-been; a dog fancier; an actor reduced to the stakes of a bum. After a well-publicised career meltdown, an ill-advised return to boxing left him with, in the words of Charlie Brooker, "a face like wet cat food." He is, in short, a joke. Yes, it's easy to laugh at Mickey Rourke. But soon, he'll be the one laughing.
The Wrestler sees Rourke at his most raw; stripped down and deconstructed for all to see. Tough guy roles in the likes of Sin City suited his busted face, but didn't dare delve beneath the surface. Here, playing washed-up wrestler Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, Rourke embodies his character in mind, body and soul. The Ram is 20 years past his prime and running on fumes - the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Beyond the mat, he lives a lonely existence, propped up only by brief encounters with Marisa Tomei's foxy stripper and his estranged daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood.
At times, it's difficult to distinguish between real life and reel life: the fact that Rourke's career is synonymous with that of his character should not be lost on audiences. But whether or not you feel sympathy for the big lug, there's no denying that the actor's past colours the role perfectly, making The Ram's tale doubly affecting. There's an air of melancholy present throughout - day-to-day activities like taking a shower are a struggle for The Ram, while seeing him grovel to his snivelling boss at his supermarket day job is simply heart-breaking. In the ring, The Ram comes alive; when the bell rings, he becomes plain old Robin Randzinski, who can't afford to pay the rent.
Darren Aronofsky is an assured enough director to let his story breathe and applies little in the way of narrative push. The Ram's relationship with Tomei's stripper Cassidy comes across as natural rather than contrived, both parties using one another as a crutch; him for physical contact, her for emotional. Cassidy's story shares plenty of parallels with that of The Ram; each character boasts a sublime pan shot where they survey their sorry surroundings - horny sad-sacks and beat-up old war-horses respectively - wondering where the fuck it all went wrong.
If Rourke's tender scenes with Wood provide the emotional jabs, then The Wrestler's 'fight' scenes are knockout. Brace yourselves, for this may ruin your childhood, but - spoiler! - wrestling is fake. Thing is, no one told these guys; The Ram and his cohorts slam each other senseless and slice each other open on a regular basis. Aronofsky doesn't pull any punches; one scene, post fight, shows The Ram black and blue from head to toe, pulling metal staples from his chest with blood pouring from a gash above his eye. The WWE only wishes it was this real.
But The Wrestler is more than just a wrasslin' movie with heart. It's an impeccable character study that never strikes an uneven tone, carried entirely on the battered shoulders of a never-better (and never-gonna-be-better) Rourke. If there's any justice, the Best Actor Oscar is his to lose - his performance is so striking and so well-judged, it's difficult to ever see him playing another role as effectively. Like Stallone with Rocky, he may well be Randy 'The Ram' until the day he dies, the only difference here being The Wrestler is firmly grounded in gritty reality, while Sly's recent comeback comes off as the stuff of cynical and clichéd Hollywood fantasy in comparison.
At its pitch-perfect close, The Wrestler simply cuts to black, where the cries of The Ram's audience slowly fade into Bruce Springsteen's sombre title tune as the credits begin to scroll. For once, sit and listen, because it's a beautiful track and the lyrics ("Have you ever seen a one-trick pony in the field so happy and free?") lend a touching and tragic film even more resonance. Emotional and engaging, The Wrestler is a masterful piece of work that deserves every award the Academy can throw at it. That sound you hear? That's Mickey Rourke - a washed-up has-been, maybe, but still having the last laugh.