DVD Release Date:  April 21, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  December 17, 2008 (limited)
Rating:  R (for violence, sexuality/nudity, language and some drug use)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  109 min.
Director:  Darren Aronofsky
Actors:  Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Judah Friedlander, Mark Margolis, Todd Barry, Wass Stevens, Ernest Miller

Remember Mickey Rourke? The public began to take notice of the actor in 1982 with Diner. Rourke went on to work with a series of notable directors during that decade—including the infamous Michael Cimino. His Oscar-winning Best Picture, The Deer Hunter, was followed by Heaven’s Gate—a film that bankrupted the studio that bankrolled it.

As a result, Cimino’s reputation hit the skids, as did Rourke’s, but the two kept teaming throughout the 1980s in Year of the Dragon and Desperate Hours (released in 1990), neither of which resuscitated their earlier reputations. However, Rourke, unlike Cimino, has continued to work steadily throughout the past two decades, scoring roles in high-profile films (Sin City, Domino).

None of those roles, however, represented a rebirth of Rourke’s career. But Rourke seems poised for just that with The Wrestler, from director Darren Aronofsky. The film is Aronofsky’s best yet, but even more remarkably, it’s the finest work yet from Rourke, as he enters his fourth decade as an actor.

Rourke plays Randy “the Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler who can’t function outside the ring. Past his prime physically, Robinson still performs regularly but struggles to make enough to pay the rent on his mobile home.

Robinson finds part-time retail work to help make ends meet, but he jumps at the chance to re-enter the wrestling arena on the weekends, even when the crowd is small and the income less than expected. The wrestling scenes are one of the film’s many strengths: We see the men laying out their moves ahead of time, in the locker room, and then carrying out the routine in front of the paying customers, who chant and cheer with a passion that exceeds that of the performers. The wrestlers’ friendships extend to the sparsely attended promotional events they attend, at which Robinson poses with fans who purchase the Polaroid photos for $8 each. For Robinson, it’s a living.

The camaraderie Robinson experiences with his fellow wrestlers extends to the bruises and wounds they share after each match. The Wrestler shows, sometimes in shocking detail, the toll that professional wrestling takes on these men. In one gruesome sequence, the men remove staples from their bodies. Yet they remain on friendly terms, even as some careers are on the rise, while other careers wane.

Robinson’s career is certainly in the latter camp, but his personal life is even worse. He frequents a strip club, where he finds solace in the company of single mom Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who is in much the same situation as Robinson. Ridiculed by clients who comment on her advancing age, Cassidy continues to hope for more dignified work to help provide for her child. She rebuffs Robinson’s advances—it’s club policy not to date customers—but finds in him a soul mate who tempts her to violate those rules.

Robinson is captive to his addictions—to performance-enhancing and recreational drugs, to alcohol, but most of all to the spotlight. His affection for Cassidy humanizes him, as does his attempts to reconcile with a daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who is wary of his sudden interest in her life. But their delicate dance of reconciliation—at one point, they literally waltz together—can’t undo the shame and bitterness that Robinson and Stephanie, respectively, feel toward each other. Robinson’s confession to her, in which he acknowledges that he deserves to be shunned by her and left alone, contains an emotional rawness that may be the acting highlight of Rourke’s long career.