The Wrestler Dir. Darren Aronofsky

[Fox Searchlight; 2008]

A young man poking his own brain with a stick in an abandoned subway station. An elderly lady hallucinating an animate refrigerator in her apartment. The intense, violently surreal imagery we've grown accustomed to in the films of director Darren Aronofsky has certainly found its well-deserved cult following. But commercial, and even critical, success has long eluded Aronofsky; his films are just too radical and divisive to receive their due recognition upon initial release. And with his latest project, Aronofsky may have truly gone off the deep end, opting not only to make an underdog sports movie about a professional wrestler, but going so far as to cast the left-for-dead Mickey Rourke as the film's titular lead, Randy "The Ram" Robinson.

This back-to-basics approach will earn Aronofsky his largest audience yet, and deservedly so. The Wrestler is a heartfelt, even moving, film that avoids the immaturity yet retains the vividness that marks his earlier work. With the overly flashy, post-film school experimentalism clearly worked out of his system, Aronofsky applies just a smidgen of lo-fi authenticity -- which is perfectly served by Maryse Alberti's cinematography and the evocative New Jersey locales -- and otherwise does well by staying out of the way. This is, after all, Rourke's movie.

The parallels between The Ram's redemptive saga and Rourke's own rocky road are unavoidable, but they only heighten the film's resonance and, particularly, the force of his performance. Equally noteworthy is Marisa Tomei, forced to deliver the ever-dubious heart-o'-gold stripper routine. Her casting can't help but highlight the painfully obvious either, but she nonetheless turns in career-defining work, matching Rourke every step of the way.

Only Evan Rachel Wood comes up short as the estranged daughter, though this is more the fault of Robert Siegel's solid, if unremarkable, screenplay, as her relationship with the wrestler feels superfluous and somewhat shallow compared to the dynamic between Rourke and Tomei. And here's something I never thought I'd hear myself say: There's not enough wrestling. But for the most part, The Wrestler succeeds admirably, signaling both the maturation of a great talent and the resurrection of a once-battered ram.

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