Saturday, February 28, 2009

What I'm Watching: The Wrestler

I don't really think the Academy Awards are anything more than a big Hollywood commercial -- and could this year's show have been any more obvious about that? -- so I don't give the results much thought usually, but Sean Penn has NEVER given a performance as good as Mickey Rourke's in "The Wrestler."

And Sean Penn has given some very good performances.

Whatever it is that makes an actor great, that makes a performance become something more than playing pretend, Mickey Rourke has it, and he's never had it more than in "The Wrestler," which I finally got a chance to see this week. It's not just that he becomes Randy "The Ram," it's that Randy Robinson exists and this is his story. As aware as I was of Rourke's virtuoso performance, it never felt like an acting job. It always felt like a window into this character's life. It felt as real as cinema can get.

"The Wrestler" is not my favorite Darren Aronofsky film. It's too much like a minimalist short story to compete with my fondness for other Aronofky movies. Too simplistic in getting from point A to point B. I prefer the formal experimentation of "The Fountain" or the manic stylishness of "Requiem for a Dream" -- more of the latter than the former. But "The Wrestler" is still a very good film, full of brilliant small moments and an attention to detail that makes almost every other movie seem like a work of pure artifice. When the Ram is working the deli counter, the movie gains a lively, passionate rhythm, and when he's in the ring, "The Wrestler" shows the pleasure and pain of the Ram living the only way he knows how. The whole movie shows that, actually. It's a story about struggle and regret, love and loss, and sadness. But it never wallows in its own pity, and Mickey Rourke never lets the Ram's spirit break totally, even when he's at his most outwardly vulnerable.

"The Wrestler" shows as much of any actor's back as I've ever seen in a full-length motion picture. We are constantly behind the Ram, following him as he prepares for battle, a few steps behind him, but never too far away. It's an angle and a camera move Aronofsky repeats throughout the movie -- our "hero" is always walking away from us, even as he's applauded by thousands -- and Aronofsky echoes it to great ironic effect in the march toward the indignity of working at the deli counter.

It's a good movie, but Rourke's performance makes it something special. And even Sean Penn knows who really deserved to win on Sunday night.

What are YOU watching?


Vanja said...

"Wrestler" is a good drama that managed to rise above the average on the strength of the title character, and Rourke's honest performance.

I've just seen Bergman's "Virgin spring", and must say that it was a very powerful and thoughtful experience.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Penn's acceptance speech was classic. He knows who really won.

However, I have to say that Penn's performance in "Dead Man Walking" rivals the Ram's. It's up for debate.

Also, "The Fountain" is Aronofsky's best film by leaps and bounds.

Also, the Dark Tower cycle is a work of metafictional wonder.

Anonymous said...

2009 is the year Mickey Rourke lost the Oscar. Not the year Sean Penn won. I predicted this, based on the fact that I was rather sure they were giving the supporting actor award to Heath Ledger and so I assumed they wouldn't give both actor awards to sort of freakish, life time-awardish roles. And in such a situation, Sean Penn is the obvious choice (I say this, however, withouth having seen Milk. I may be wrong, he might have been incredible).

I just came back from watching Terrence Davies' The Long Day Closes at the cinematheque (they're showing a retrospective, and I'm going back for all the other ones as well). What a film. It's been quite a long time since I've been so unequivocally impressed by a film, the last one being Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg, which I saw two months ago. I've been meaning to buy a lot of Maddin DVDs, but I'm sort of broke lately, so it's on my to do list. I'd like recommendations, however. I'm screening Careful at the cinematheque in a couple of weeks, but other than that, I'm really not familiar with his films.

Bill Reed said...

Been watching some Coens I hadn't gotten to yet: Burn After Reading (meh) and Raising Arizona (heh). And various other things. Steamboy's an awesome anime, man.

Anonymous said...

I think Mickey Rourke's performance was better. But this is one of those Oscar upsets I'm not upset about. Sean Penn was amazing in Milk. He brought Milk to life the same you describe Rourke doing it for The Ram. Both movies worked so well because the lead performances were so powerful. I do think Aronofsky should have been nominated for Best Director. I think he may even deserved to have won.

Come to think of it, I think the category they got the most wrong was Best Director. Both Aronofsky and Nolan should have been in there.

Chad Nevett said...

Just got back from seeing The Wrestler (finally!) and... wow. Since I'm a fan of wrestling, I know that this depicts a small part of that world/something that's not an issue for the wrestlers people see on TV these days, but, wow, there's still so much in there that I recognise... My friend Melissa had some problems watching certain parts--and so did I--but, I've never been a fan of hardcore/extreme wrestling, so...

But, yeah, Rourke brings it.