Friday, January 16, 2009

Wrestling with Choices

For the first few minutes of Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler it may seem as though there is little to differentiate it from a student film.  The camera wanders aimlessly, following a big imposing figure, whose face is only caught in glimpses if you squint your eyes really, really, hard.  You see his face but you don't really see his face and occasionally the camera actually loses him all together.  The effect is slightly disorienting but applied over time it has surprising impact, because once the film is over I really felt like I had walked several gritty, pain-filled, miles with Randy "The Ram" Robinson, personified by Mickey Rourke in what is undeniably the very best performance of his career and one of the most memorable, lived-in, performances of the decade.  

What sets this apart from the recent string of modish shaky-cam indie dramas, is the arresting honesty of what is unfolding in front of us.  There is a living, breathing, pulse coursing through this movie and that resonates on a level that couldn't be possible if this were just a shallow experiment in verite cinema.  Some sequences in the picture are so raw, so merciless and yet so unmistakably human, that they resonate in a way we've seldom seen since the films of John Cassavettes.  This is thanks in large part to the pitch perfect performances not only of Rourke but also of Marisa Tomei as an erratic, emotionally guarded, stripper with a heart of gold and Evan Rachel Wood as Rourke's damaged, angry, daughter.  Working off a script that is spare on dialogue and exposition, the actors help us to imagine the history of these characters and the various events that must have brought them to this point, through subtle shifts in their physicality and their patterns of speech.  

My wife and I used to argue about films that fall back on this kind of hand-held, naturally-lit, aesthetic.  I'm a classicist at heart and I have always swooned for the sweeping, carefully assembled and meticulously staged visuals of Hitchcock, Spielberg and Kubrick.  What Aronofsky does here is equally graceful and in some ways far more subtle.  It is almost as if we are a fly on the wall, as we witness the heartbreak, self-discovery and ultimate redemption of the Ram's journey.   The movie disarms us with its humanity.  It shakes us by holding up a mirror and showing us ourselves in these desperate, tragic, characters. 

This is a movie about the impact the choices we make in the past have on us in the present, but this isn't a message film.  The movie ends abruptly without leading to a final destination or moral realization.  In the end, we are only left with the journey that we've taken alongside the characters.  But after all, at the end of the road, what more is there to life itself?  The Wrestler is a hearty, satisfying slice of life that swept me up with three central performances that are shattering in their immediacy.   It is one of my very favorite movies of the year and a film that demands repeat viewings.