Indie film darling Darren Aronofsky stumbled with his most recent movie, The Fountain, but he is back on track with The Wrestler, which had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last year.
Bolstered by outstanding work by Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood, it is in fact Mickey Rourke's career-best performance, resulting in a Best Actor prize-winning streak that began in Venice and continued at the Golden Globes and Monday's British Academy Film Awards (Baftas).
Rourke plays a one-time wrestling star, Randy the Ram, still hustling 20 years past his prime. The strongest scenes are the opening sections that simply delineate Ram's daily routines. He continues to perform in low-rent arenas and the film does a fine job revealing the mixture of fakery and bruising physical assaults that are part of the wrestling game.
Ram can barely pay his rent, perhaps because he still spends money on his appearance – dyeing his locks, visiting a tanning salon and relying on steroids to shape up.
This sharp slice of life is not enough to sustain a movie, so writer Robert Siegel has come up with a plot that hits many predictable notes. When Ram suffers a heart attack, he makes changes to his life, reaching out to a tough-as-nails stripper (Tomei) and his estranged daughter (Wood).
Although the film teeters on the brink of sentimentality, it never topples into the slush, and this is a tribute to the rigorous direction, as well as the astringent performances. Still, there are mawkish moments: When Rourke and Wood visit an abandoned beachside emporium, a tear trickles down his cheek as he pleads for her love. The Wrestler oscillates between hard-edged naturalism and stock melodrama but ends on an understated note of melancholy that seems just right.
Rourke dispenses with all vanity to plumb the depths of this well-meaning but severely damaged man. Tomei delivers one of her most arresting performances, again without any trace of vanity.
Wood's part is smaller, but she captures the scalding anger of a woman neglected for most of her life. The supporting players add to the authenticity of the atmosphere, which is the hallmark of the production with vivid cinematography and set design.
Ram might be the ultimate loser, but Rourke scores a winning tour de force.