"The Wrestler," released in the U.S. in 2009, is a gritty and compelling film about Randy "Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a past-his-prime pro wrestler from the hinterlands of New Jersey. On weekends the aging Ram still body slams opponents and "sits on other men's faces," in the mocking words of the manager at the grocery store where Ram keeps a day job offloading trucks.
Twenty years after his glory days, Ram is stuck doing the thing that feeds his ego and his pride. He still loves the fans, even if by now they are reduced to a sad trickle at autograph signings. But ringside at the makeshift venues inside rented halls and hotel conference rooms in the Garden State, where these wrestlers hold their matches, the crowds are fanatic. Ram works the independent circuits, including Combat Zone Wrestling, where his middle-aged body, propped up by a panoply of prescription drugs — minus the scripts — suffers broken glass and staple gun abuse, in return for an envelope of small bills.
Out of the blue, Ram is offered a chance to relive his earlier triumphs and make a decent payday with an "epic" rematch against his most famous opponent. Ram's redemption may have come too late, however, because his failing health convinces the old wrestler to finally toss out his tights.
Instead, Ram takes on more hours at the grocery store, working the deli counter. He struggles to rebuild a family life and thinks about settling down with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an exotic dancer. While Ram embraces his job at the deli counter with all the enthusiasm of the good-natured extrovert that he is, old habits die hard. In Ram's case, they are those of a hard-charger primarily defined by the camaraderie of his calling and a penchant to party.
Rourke and Tomei were both nominated for the Oscar for their acting in this movie. But the Academy overlooked Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Ram’s estranged daughter Stephanie. Rachel Wood absolutely stuns with her performance in this minor role. When Ram reaches out to Stephanie, Wood takes her character in a matter of seconds from surprise at seeing her father to indignant outrage at his having walked out on her life so long ago. In a later scene she conveys her emotions through movement, like a dancer. But when her character needs to go beyond tough, Wood's glowering eyes and trembling lip convey a fragile ferocity that positively leaps off the screen.
As for Tomei, her scenes in Cheeques, a "gentleman's club," may be pathetic, as she portrays an over-the-hill lap dancer begging customers to pay for her private attentions, and torturous as she performs on the main stage like an arthritic gymnast, but the 44-year-old Academy Award winner definitely brings it when it comes to those nude scenes. Viewers who remember her as Mona Lisa Vito in the 1992 film "My Cousin Vinny," will be forced to update that impression, while conceding her biological clock has seemingly ticked quite slowly in the interim. By contrast, in scenes outside the club, Tomei imparts to her character a scrubbed purity that masks world weariness.
Back at the deli counter, a customer recognizes the former wrestler slicing cheese. The spark of shame caused by the collision of those two worlds re-ignites Ram's pride and suddenly he is on his way back into the ring — via an uproarious grocery store exit that many in the audience might envy. Cleanup in aisle three.
Cassidy must also choose between "the life" and real life, and here Tomei achieves a sincerity that balances the melodrama.
Ram's poor health is at the root of the tension as he returns to face an old nemesis. We have already been shown the mutual respect among the wrestlers, all the more remarkable when contrasted against the fervor of the ringside fans who pour out love as easily as they spew hate. We have also seen how, in locker rooms before and after the staged insanity of the bouts, the younger wrestlers defer to Ram, who always responds humbly with kind words. We have listened as the wrestlers plan their bouts beforehand ("You bring the cheap heat") to make sure they are on the same page.
Director Darren Aronofsky pulls away this safety net for the final bout. Ram's opponent remains an enigma so we experience the uncertainty Ram feels, not knowing if he will even survive the athletic exertion of the match. Ram takes that leap of faith, and the film's end is a testimony to the success of Rourke's gut-wrenching and heart-wrenching performance.