From the archives: "A tough guy who hides a wounded heart"

In February of 2008 I made my first attempt at maintaining a film blog; it lasted about a year, during which time I posted reviews of contemporary films alongside some reflections on older favorites.  I originally published the following review of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler on February 7, 2009.  I went on to name the film as one of my favorites of 2008.  I was particularly impressed by Mickey Rourke’s performance, and perhaps even more so by Marisa Tomei’s.  At the time, The Wrestler felt like a surprising—but not unsuccessful—departure from Aronofsky’s high-voltage aesthetic, typified by Requiem for a Dream (2000):

“Aronofsky and his solid cast tend to underplay rather than overplay, and the film is quiet and moving. Aronofsky here adopts a loose, handheld, verité-style camera and shoots on grainy, washed-out film stock, so that scenes of tenderness or confrontation between the characters feel raw, believable, rather than glossily staged. Mickey Rourke’s much-hyped performance is subtle and understated. In the ring, we’re witness to the physical torment suffered by his hulking-but-battered body; outside, we’re witness to his emotional vulnerability. He’s in control of his physicality during a match, where every move is choreographed, but in real life he moves clumsily, uncertain how to act, what to say. And late in the film, when he takes a part-time job working behind the counter of a supermarket deli, Rourke shows an offhand, improvisatory sense of comic timing.

Marisa Tomei, meanwhile, does fantastic work as Cassidy, Randy’s stripper pal, confidante, and would-be girlfriend; as he does, she hides her vulnerability behind a thick skin. Interestingly, Aronofsky parallels Cassidy’s stripping with Randy’s wrestling; both Cassidy and Randy have made their living as performers, exhibiting and manipulating their bodies for others’ pleasure. Both also feel their youth fading, as those bodies begin to fail them. Tomei transcends the stock type, the stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold; she turns Cassidy into a woman with a life outside of her work (and even aside from Randy). She’s also a woman who has learned something from a life that hasn’t been easy or fair to her. Tomei’s performance beautifully complements Rourke’s, because both of them, despite being wounded, hardened, suffering people, still have the capacity for joy; when they smile or laugh together, it’s as if they’re being lit up from within. […]  The Wrestler isn’t a profoundly original film, but its characters are nicely drawn; they look and behave like real people living and working in bad parts of Jersey, which is really all that this film is about. Out of the bars and strip clubs and trailer parks where these people hang out, Aronofsky finds something that’s true.”

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