When Mickey Rourke's acting career was nosediving in the 1990s, he stepped back into the boxing ring, nearly two decades after he'd fought as an amateur. For the next five years, he carved a career on the professional circuit, gaining millions of dollars in prize money and a face skewed by reconstructive surgery. He eventually quit in 1996 after being advised by doctors that at age 44, a knock-out blow could end his life as well as his unbeaten record.
Though The Wrestler is far from a biopic, director Darren Aronofsky conceived the film with Rourke in mind, and the similarities between him and his character, Randy 'The Ram' Robinson are played on throughout. They've both been up there with the A-listers and have both fallen hard on their way back down. The question at the heart of the story – in real life as well as fiction – is whether we'll witness their redemption or their final descent into obscurity.
We meet Randy 20 years after the bout of his career against 'The Ayatollah'. From the opening shots you can see this one-time champion is now a defeated man; misshapen face turned from the unsteady camera, speech mumbled, his prize-fighter body cushioned away inside a thick, winter jacket.
In his glory days, Nintendo made wrestling games with 'The Ram' as the star. He had his own toy action figure and the stamina needed to sustain his fame. Now he lives in a trailer park, sleeping in a single bed with an American flag above him and tubs of steroids and painkillers by his side. He needs glasses, a hearing aid and his bleached eighties hairdo is straggly and thin. Randy is lonely and getting old.
Rourke makes his character's emotional degradation almost as painful to witness as the physical masochism he puts himself through in Saturday night wrestling matches for dwindling crowds of nostalgic fans. In a series of excruciatingly violent scenes, we see him boost his depleted ego and the earnings from his supermarket job by taking on opponents wielding staple guns and barbed wire. Like Rourke, Randy is told by doctors to quit this madness or accept an early death. But doing so makes his isolation even harder to bear.
Being the work of Aronofsky, who was responsible for the relentless misery of Requiem for a Dream, you know this isn't going to be a feel-good movie. He's an expert at extracting every drip of pathos from a scene, and the run-down, wintery New Jersey setting adds to the bleakness. Yet when Randy's 'fight or die' ultimatum comes, there are signs that The Wrestler could end on a happier note than where it began. Randy sees the possibility of a soulmate in the form of Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a middle-aged lap dancer who, like him, trades on her body in a job that favours the young. He seeks out his long-neglected daughter, and even starts to enjoy his job behind the Deli counter – despite the humiliation of having to wear his Samson-esque locks in a hairnet.
The story of Randy's struggle to find dignity and comfort in his post-wrestling life is fascinating, not least thanks to Rourke's Golden Globe-winning performance – who better to play a washed-up has-been than a washed-up has-been? He's lost his looks but Rourke still has his crooked, sad smile and he uses it to perfectly capture Randy's combination of misguided hope and long-worn disappointment. Whereas his character's chances of redeeming himself are far from certain, The Wrestler makes Rourke's surer than ever.
It's hard not to see this as solely Rourke's movie, even though Aronofsky has underscored the personal story with a larger political allegory about America's fall from grace. It's heavy-handed symbolism that feels unnecessary, and is perhaps the only blight on this must-see, memorable film.