Evan Rachel Wood
Better a has-been than a never-been, as the old adage puts it. Yet The Wrestler, Darren Aronofskys fourth feature film, posits the view that there really is nothing sadder than a once-great artist clinging to past glories, and in Mickey Rourke hes found the perfect embodiment of this viewpoint.
For, back in the 1980s, Rourke was cinemas very own poster-boy. Where the emerging Tom Cruise was squeaky-clean, all dazzling teeth and action roles, Rourke had an edge, an ever-present sense of danger. Burning across the screen in a series of blistering performances in films such as Diner, Rumblefish, 9 And A Half Weeks and Angel Heart, some even compared him to Marlon Brando.
And then it all went wrong. Proclamations of support for the IRA, a succession of ever dismal sex thrillers, drugs and plastic surgery saw Rourkes star fall so far that hed soon giving up acting to become a boxer, and even suffered the ignominy of appearing in an Enrique Iglesias video.
In the last few years, hes re-emerged with cameos in films like Sin City and Once Upon A Time In Mexico, but The Wrestler is his first lead role in nearly 20 years. As washed-up wrestler Randy The Ram Robinson, he gives a pitch-perfect performance, perfectly encapsulating a deep well of regret and heartache while still showing flashes of the charisma that made him a big star in the first place.
For Randy Robinson was once a big star, as the credits sequence showing posters advertising fights at Madison Square Gardens tells us. Twenty years later, Robinson is still on the circuit, but only attracting a handful of followers and die-hard obsessives. The film details Randys attempts to redeem himself, chasing that one last big pay day while also reaching out to an emotionally bruised stripper (Marisa Tomei) and trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).
As Randy, Rourke is simply immense. He may be a flawed character (at one stage missing the long-delayed reunion dinner with his daughter in favour of anonymous sex with a woman hes picked up at a bar) but its impossible not to sympathise. With just one look, Rourke can convey a proud dignity and a deeply sad, wounded personality. Its hard not to be moved by a scene where he begs a child to stay and play Nintendo with him in his trailer simply because he can play a cartoon version of himself back in better times.
For, at heart, Randy is an entertainer. The one time that he comes to life in the film is when hes performing for others be it in the ring, for the children who swarm around his trailer, or for the customers at the deli counter where he works part-time. When hes not performing, hes dead inside, and this is the heart of Aronofskys impossibly poignant film.
But this is more than just a masterful character study. The wrestling scenes are exciting and at times horrific, and Robert Siegels script beautifully shows the respect, camaraderie and companionship of the wrestlers outside the ring. The fact that Aronofsky can expertedly switch from a baying crowd at a wrestling match to a beautifully small and intimate date between Rourke and Tomei demonstrates just what a superb director he is.
Of the supporting cast, Tomei is wonderful as the stripper trying to make ends meet for her son, while Wood confirms her growing reputation with a sensitive performance as Randys daughter. Yet, Mickey Rourke overshadows all in the role of his career. Its no surprise to see hes already won a Golden Globe for The Wrestler, and the smart money would be on him to win an Oscar next month.
The ambiguous ending may frustrate some viewers, but its perfectly judged. As the screen cuts to black and Bruce Springsteens affecting title song kicks in, youll be hard pressed to shake The Wrestler from your thoughts for days, even weeks, to come.