In the extraordinary new film THE WRESTLER, written by Robert D. Siegel, director Darren Aronofsky keeps his camera behind the titular character for the first few minutes of the film. He shoots verité-style, his images hand-held and grainy (perhaps shot on 16mm) and he will not let us see our leading man’s face for far longer than seems at all normal. He is obviously teasing us, because we’re all curious to see what our lead character looks like.
Our curiousity, of course, stems from the fact that Mickey Rourke plays The Wrestler, and we want to know what Mickey Rourke looks like these days. Unfortunately, because the film has gained such critical kudos not only as a film but for Rourke’s performance, Rourke is being trundled out on the dog-and-pony circuit (I saw him recently on “Letterman”), presumably because he wants an Oscar. He should get one.
So most viewers will have seen Rourke’s face – on television or in a newspaper or magazine – before they first see it in the film, and thus, the “surprise”, built up by Aronofsky’s roving camera, is blown. But it doesn’t matter, because this is a performance not just of the face but the entire body, and Rourke’s body in this film is a damaged, inflated map of character: it is everything that THE WRESTLER is: truthful, sad, painful, and absolutely full to the brim of total life experience.
THE WRESTLER, more than any other film I can remember, seems impossible to have been cast with anybody else and anyones else’s body. Rourke’s body as filmed is massive, but not pretty: a scarred confluence of muscle and pain, of gigantic proportion that a heart shouldn’t seem to be able to support. And, indeed, that becomes a major plot point of the film. The Wrestler of the title suffers a heart attack, and faces an imposed retirement from the only thing in his life that gives him true joy. If this seems trite, know it is not handled tritely: the film is nothing but unflinchingly true to itself; there is not a single contrived moment.
One of the things that fascinates us about mass-market wrestling (if we’re fascinated at all) is the truth behind it. What is true and what isn’t, when these behemoth entertainers enter the ring? We know that the fight is fixed – in other words, we know that THEY know who is going to win – but beyond that, what is real and what is not? I remember in the late eighties, watching the World Wrestling Federation on television, when the wrestlers started to bleed. I was deeply disturbed, and wondered whether the wrestlers were actually bleeding or whether the blood was fake. THE WRESTLER answers these questions, and the answers aren’t pretty. The Wrestler (Rourke’s character) hides a razor blade in his wristband during a bout, and, while on the mat, he slices open his forehead. It is disturbing, indeed disgusting. But the crowd loves it. They want blood, and First Blood has now been drawn.
The thing is, Rourke has stated in interviews that he actually cut open his own forehead during the filming of this scene. So again, we can ask ourselves: what is real and what is fake? The film contains many wrestling scenes, and the intensity of the violence increases, becoming extremely horrifying for a blood-scarred viewer like myself. A key moment of the film has a fellow wrestler asking, before their bout, if Rourke’s character would be happy to take some staple-gun staples during the fight. When asked how painful it is, the opponent offers, “Not so bad going in. Worse coming out.” Then, during the bout, having seen Rourke take a few in the chest, this bold fellow staple-guns himself IN THE TEMPLE, above his left eyebrow. Aronofsky has used real wrestlers for this film (besides Rourke). Did we just see a guy ACTUALLY staple-gun himself in the head? And, if so – did we ACTUALLY see Mickey Rourke take two staples in the chest?
I think we probably did. Rourke shows no mercy in this role – not to us and certainly not to himself. He’s already gained an enormous amount of muscle for the part (and when you’re in your fifties, this must be painful); he throws himself all over the ring (and out of it); what’s a couple of staples in the chest?
There is no doubt in my mind that the wrestling scenes were beyond punishing. They carry all the savage violence of what modern popular wrestling has become – namely, a competition to see who can wear the most pain. Take a pitchfolk to the back, become the next Hulk Hogan. One of the many tragedies in the story of this film is that Rourke’s wrester is no longer Hulk Hogan – he’s Hulk Hogan eighteen years on, performing for four hundred or so bucks in untelevised bouts in converted Town Halls for not millions of viewers but a couple of hundred blood-thirsty drunken locals. His audience has diminished to the point of virtual non-existence, but the violence he must inflict upon himself continues to grow, driven by the demands of an ever-demanding blood-lust amongst those he still continues to entertain. It seems like only a matter of time before someone literally has to lose an eye for the sake of a buck in this incredibly brutal game. Or, indeed, a life.
Rourke has put himself through the ringer for this part. A not-that-successful boxer for the last twenty years or so, he knows pain and how to wear it. But the pain he wears in this film finally brings it home to us, his actual audience, his audience of moviegoers. I thought that Mickey Rourke was one of the best actors I’d ever seen in his glory days of eighties movies (DINER, YEAR OF THE DRAGON, NINE AND A HALF WEEKS, RUMBLEFISH et al). Now he has delivered one of the most personal, painful, truthful, naturalistic and moving film performances I have ever seen. It’s the performance of the year, in one of the great movies of the year. And it truly has been delivered with tears, sweat – and blood.