Can a movie as modest as The Wrestler, wrapped up in spandex, sweat and a stolen kiss to Ratt’s “Round and Round,” be 2008’s best? The year certainly hasn’t lacked for grandeur (or at least size), but consequence has been in short supply. Here, finally, is a film that, through its very intimacy, touches on love, money, dreams and death in a way that will pile-drive you through the mat. The pounder is one Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke, in an astounding career revision), once a 1980s superstar, but now plying his cash-poor trade in smelly veterans’ halls in Jersey. The body’s seen better days, but the hair, a peroxide mane, remains brilliant, and the spirit is willing.
The original script by Robert Siegel, a former editor-in-chief at The Onion, could have coasted on the comic anachronism of this Reaganite warrior, but it courts risk, putting our hearts in our throats. It sends Randy two angels: a seen-better-days stripper (Tomei, fearless), who, for a moment, awakens in him a dream, and a bitterly estranged daughter (Wood), who may yet be his salvation. Siegel also throws the Ram a stroke and double-bypass surgery. As the camera sweeps the wintry Asbury Park boardwalk, The Wrestler takes on Kazan-level poetics, the big man suddenly seeming small and fragile. Who is the magician of such a spell? Darren Aronofsky, nearly a goner with his ludicrous The Fountain, rebounds as strongly as Rourke; if you want, you can sift out his preoccupations with cosmic metaphysics in this compliant sufferer and fallen saint. But the special effects here are human ones, thrilling and tragic.