wrestlertw12-19-08For decades, The Ram was the king of the ring. He was the strutting embodiment of every twelve-year-old’s heroic fantasy. Righteous. Powerful. Invincible. Now he’s playing for peanuts to a handful of fans in high school gymnasiums, tossing around grateful amateurs and sleeping in his van. There is the man that was and the man that is, both of them painfully etched in the opening ten minutes, before director Darrin Aronofsky allows us a glimpse of his face.

A top-billed relic on a small circuit, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is valiantly ignoring the due date on his career. He’s got bad joints and tired muscles. He owes back rent and keeps a part-time job in a supermarket storeroom. But the moment the he walks to the mat, he transforms from a creaky has-been to a living legend, spinning on the top rope and scissor-kicking with style.

In a match against real-life folk hero “Necrobutcher,” and a sequence so brutal it’s nearly unwatchable, Randy’s heart nearly taps out. Post-recovery The Ram tries to be the ordinary guy he’s hidden away all these years with spandex, dye-jobs, and mounds of steroidal bulk. He tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and finds himself drawn to Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a patronizing stripper with age issues parallel to his own.

Problem is, the harder Robin works at escaping the ring the more desperate he is to stay Randy. Talk of art imitating life aside, it’s apparent that Rourke lent Aronofsky his entire body for this film, putting years of his own hard living on display in Randy’s name and doing his damnedest to erase any distinction between the character and himself. Comeback performances are a cliché because they rarely go this far, and the result is a complex, endearing triumph.

Tomei’s cagey Cassidy fits perfectly in the grey landscape. The connection between her and The Ram is tough to read, kindred at times and mutually resentful at others. Evan Rachel Wood has little room to establish herself as a daughter to Rourke, who at this stage in life resembles no one except himself. There’s a scene in which she kicks open a door with brute force and you go that’s his girl. In a movie crackling with poignant detail, it’s a moment that stands out.

The Wrestler is a towering giant of ambiguity. Humorous and heartbreaking, raw and meticulous, candid and mysterious, altogether it is a masterpiece. To the world of Pro wrestling, Aronofsky has delivered its Raging Bull.

The Wrestler is in theaters December 18th, 2008