In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke plays a wrung-dry ex-superstar dealing with the realization that his body is breaking down, and that he doesn't have much going on in his life to compensate. His daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) wants nothing to do with him, because he was never around when she was growing up. He's infatuated with a stripper (Marisa Tomei) whose affection dries up whenever he puts his money away. And his part-time supermarket job doesn't pay well enough to keep him in wrestling costumes, muscle-enhancing drugs, and rent for his cruddy trailer in New Jersey. Frankly, it's hard to imagine an actor better suited for this part than Rourke, whose surgically altered face and chemically altered body don't require much makeup to look worn and abused—and that's not even taking into account Rourke's own well-documented fall from showbiz grace, which gives every apologetic line he speaks an extra layer of contrition.
It's also hard to imagine a better director for a story of wrestling and its discontents than Darren Aronofsky, who emphasizes the barrenness and chill of the story's wintry suburb-scapes. Early in The Wrestler, Aronofsky goes overboard with the Dardennes-style follow-shots, holding on the back of Rourke's head more for affectation's sake than to enhance the mood. But Aronofsky also helpfully lingers over the lurid details of combat theater—the razors, the barbed wire, the staple guns, the faint whine of feedback from an old hearing aid—and gives what might've been just another thinly plotted, often obvious indie melodrama a thick shot of viscera. (At the least, WWE devotees now have their own Passion Of The Christ.)
The Wrestler's biggest flaw is that much of it is predictable, including the subplot involving Rourke's estranged daughter, which features a lot of stock "You were never there for me!" speeches. But even that flaw isn't too glaring, given that this story takes place in the milieu of a fake sport that relies on simple, manufactured drama. Besides, The Wrestler has its habitat down cold, from the under-filled small-town arenas that host the after-market wrestling circuit to the upbeat '80s metal and seedy strip clubs where the hero finds solace. There's a lot in The Wrestler about people who sell their bodies, and about the wreckage left behind once the milling throng loses interest. (The scene in an abandoned beachside fun park is particularly effective.) Mostly though, the movie feeds off Rourke, who plays a genuinely decent guy who never lets his dawning self-awareness interfere with his responsibility to give the fans a show.
(Editor's note: The Wrestler was written by Robert Siegel, a former editor of The Onion and personal friend to several members of The A.V. Club staff. Noel Murray has no relationship with Siegel.)