Say what you like about Darren Aronofsky, the guy takes big risks. Whether it be a story about obsessive mathematician, or pluming the deepest, darkest depths of drug-addled squalor, or even a bald Hugh Jackman floating through space in a bubble, it’s pretty obvious that when choosing a project, commercial viability is not exactly his first consideration.
So after briefly flirting with The Batman franchise his decision to make a serious drama about the pro-wrestling circuit starring Mickey Rourke, an actor no major financiers wanted to touch, is really just par for the course. Shot mostly hand-held (to save money) and without the benefit of on set playback (to save time and therefore more money), this is a really organic, free-flowing movie that time and again just takes you places you don’t expect the subject matter ever could.
In fact there really is something quite inspired about the casting of Rourke. As a washed up old actor battling his demons with a myriad of personal issues playing a washed up old wrestler battling his demons with a myriad of personal issues, Rourke literally puts this story on his back and carries it to a place within himself that commands only the deepest level of respect.
This really rather simple story of a guy unable to let go of the past, living off glories that are everything to him, and killing him at the same time is the culmination of an exhaustive research effort by Aronofsky and scripter Robert Siegel. A world away from the WWE, they traveled the independent circuits of the American heartland meeting guys who by the time they are thirty-five have spines that are so impacted they literally can’t tie their own shoe. Guys who way back when played to 20,000 people that now see crowds of 200 on a good night. Guys who still do it because they still love it and more importantly, just don’t know how to do anything else.
With six-months intensive weight training under the supervision of a former Israeli commando, Rourke cuts an impressive and at the same time wildly unnatural figure as the well beyond past it circuit legend Randy ‘The Ram’ Robertson. With a face like a crater someone has detonated, his '80s metal hair, and his muscled-yet-mutilated body tells the story of his life; the scar on his shoulder – a bad hit with a 2 x 4, the rough tissue down his left side – over the top rope at The Garden. Ram wrestles and Ram clumsily courts Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper at a local dive who is herself is slowly realizing her body, her tool, is not the earner it used to be, and who enjoys something of an empathy with favorite customer Ram.
Hanging around the locker room with The Ram, witnessing firsthand the hero worship from the next generation, listening to them go over their routines with each other while they hide the razors in their wrist tape, it is immediately obvious that these guys are hardcore. They might wear silly outfits and have names like “The Funky Samoans” and “Paul E. Normous” but their physical bravery and commitment to putting on the best show that they can each and every night is beyond reproach.
After enduring another grueling night on the mat (for which he earned very little but the adulation of the fans, which is the real prize) Ram returns home to his squalid trailer where its painkillers and beer for dinner. Flanked by a small army of adoring ten-year-olds, Ram trudges to the grocery store to beg for a few more hours so he can make good on his back rent. A tragic figure hopelessly out of time, Ram drives to arenas in his beat up old van with old Poison cassettes blaring out of speakers, cursing the day that pussy Kurt Cobain ruined rock music. But he’s got a big promotion coming up that should see him straight for a few months, a special 20th anniversary rematch of his illustrious career’s finest hour – Randy ‘The Ram’ Robertson Vs The Ayatollah.
At the gym Ram negotiates the purchase of a small, illegal, brown paper bag pharmacy from a guy that makes Schwarzenegger’s heyday physique look modest. It’s a purchase that puts him further behind in the rent but one that’s a vital necessity – Ram needs painkillers and juice to keep working so that he can afford to buy painkillers and juice so that he can keep working. But nothing lasts forever and after one particularly brutal hardcore match, when the doctors have removed all the staples and breakaway glass embedded in his flesh, Ram’s battered body finally gives out and he’s face down in a pool of his own vomit.
Faced with a choice of retirement or an early grave, a devastated Ram is forced to pull the plug on the big, upcoming anniversary event. Bravely attempting to move on he looks to reconcile with his estranged daughter Stephanie (a sensational Evan Rachel Wood, managing to convey a lifetime of resentment is just a few brief scenes). Needing the vibe of a crowd like a junkie needs to get well, Ram can’t help but turn his job at the deli counter into a painfully pathetic circus act to feed the aching showman inside. Broke, frustrated and desperately alone, Ram (foolishly?) returns to the ring to face the Ayatollah knowing what it might ultimately cost him.
It’s a tour de force, warts and all performance from Rourke who has personally been down this same road, leaving the acting world for boxing to answer a few questions he had about himself. In many ways Rourke is The Ram – a once great icon who has made more than his share of mistakes and is now living with the consequences. But like Rourke, Ram is a pure spirit who simply can’t help being the man that he is and ultimately makes no apology for it.
Once again, Aronofsky delivers a gut punch portrait of unhealthy obsession and self-destructive compulsion, where need overrides good sense and puts someone on a path to oblivion while pinning their eyes wide open, so they don’t miss a second of the torturous journey. It’s a bruising, forceful film that invites us to glimpse the culmination of a lifetime of bad choices by stepping onto a train that was too far down the wrong track twenty years ago and all we can do is hold on for dear life until it finally derails.
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Runtime: 109 Minutes
Distributor: Fox Searchlight