Up until my brief moment of distress, I thought that The Wrestler was pretty terrific. In the role of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a professional wrestler who is way past his prime and finding himself wrestling in venues that alternately reminded me of local independently-run gymnasiums and dog-fight arenas, Mickey Rourke is absolutely astounding. I don't think it's going too far at all to say that if, for some bizarre reason, Mickey Rourke had turned down this role (and he's done things far more bizarre than that) then this movie could not have been made. Oh, they would have found somebody else, I'm sure, and they would have made a movie, but they wouldn't have been able to make this movie. Who else is so physically perfect for this role? Rourke is middle aged, he's ruggedly powerful, and he looks all beat to hell. Add to that the fact that, when the mood strikes him, he can act his balls off (literally), and you realize that any other casting choice would have been a step down. The Wrestler isn't just a career performance; it is the reason Rourke was put on this planet.
And Siegel and Aronofsky (and Rourke) have constucted so many wonderful moments in this film, so many small details are gotten just right -- among my favorites include the Ram's taste in gifts, and the moment when he invites a neighbor kid over to play Nintendo. The Nintendo scene features some of Rourke's best acting the entire film, as he struggles to follow the kid's end of their conversation because he not only is too old to know what kids like anymore, but the kid is talking into his bad ear ("Have you heard of Call of Duty 4?" "What? 'Call it Duty Four'?"). I also loved the scene where the Ram, at his weekday job at a grocery store, is first made to work behind the store's deli counter. When have you ever seen such a job presented in a film where the character doing the job actually enjoys it? Where it's been presented as anything but a soul-crushing endeavor fit only for those not fortunate enough to live in a city? Granted, Rourke's boss (played by stand-up comic Todd Barry) is an asshole of the movie-boss variety, but this particular scene is so terrific, and so unusual, and so funny, without ever feeling less than natural, that I was pretty much completely on-board with the film by that time. The rest of The Wrestler could have been about the Ram working the deli counter, as far as I was concerned.
Still, the film is great when it deals with his wrestling career, too. The film depicts pro wrestling as something that only a lunatic would want to take part in, but it does so without condescending to the people who actually do take part in it. The Ram has an easy friendship with his colleagues, those who work in the ring and out, and his conversations with them have the kind of flow that shop-talk between two or more people who've worked in the same profession for many years always has (even if you get the sense that, sometimes, the Ram would rather just be left alone). And all these guys are professional. They want to do their jobs well -- in the locker room after a particularly brutal match, the doctors who tend to the Ram know what they're doing, and they're dialogue with the Ram is brief and considerate (it's brief because they have work to do). None of the scenes that include or somehow revolve around wrestling devolve into depicting the kind of ostentatious grime (with one possible exception, a scene about an autograph signing, but I have to say that part felt dead-on to me, too) that most films add because they think that's how certain people live, even though the filmmakers have not actually gone out to find out what the truth is. I got the sense that Aronofsky and Siegel know whereof they speak.
But the story moves on, and becomes, as I indicated before, a little rote. The Ram's relationship with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and his stripper friend Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) begins to follow a very familiar pattern. And the Ram's specific crisis in the film starts to dovetail a little too neatly with Cassidy's. Despite all the beautiful build up, and all the meticulous attention to the details of the life and career of haggard, middle-aged pro wrestler, The Wrestler suddenly became ordinary. Well made, and beautifully acted, but ordinary. And then it ended, and the ending is about as perfect as you could hope for. Siegel and Aronofsky were following a familiar pattern so they could give us something unfamiliar, uncompromising, and deeply moving.
I'd be lying if I didn't point out that, for me, a sizable amount of the ending's power comes from the Bruce Springsteen song that plays over the closing credits. Never before have I felt that a song that isn't even played over a particular scene added so much to the overall emotional impact of a film. But Springsteen's song (which I quote in this post's title) does just that, and when people in the theater where I saw The Wrestler started getting up in the middle of it, I got frustrated. "Why are you leaving??" I thought. "The movie's not over until this song is over!" What can you do? People are morons. Anyway, I thought of closing this review by quoting the song's refrain, but that would be unfair to anyone who hasn't seen the film yet. It would be the same as giving away the ending.