The Wrestler

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The Wrestler
Review (10/10)
(By Erin Cullin)

Of all of the films that have appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival, no film has been more anticipated by critics then Darren Aronofsky's film, "The Wrestler". After winning the Golden Lion at Venice, curiosity was peaked about whether it really was this year's "Million Dollar Baby".

Based upon a screenplay by Robert Siegel, "The Wrestler" tells the story of Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke), an aging wrestler who has long since passed the peak of his career. When a heart attack forces him into an early retirement, he must forge a new life for himself. Broke and alone, he struggles to reclaim the pieces of a life that he had forsaken to pursue his career in the ring. The film also stars Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood.

It is always difficult to approach a film that has received glowing accolades without having slightly inflated expectations. I had made viewing it a priority during the Film Festival (as, apparently did the nearly 600 other press and industry people who attended the screening with me). Although I hoped not to be disappointed, all of the ingredients for failure were present.

At the risk of inflating the expectations of others, I must say that "The Wrestler" is the best film that I have seen this year. Unless another "No Country for Old Men" is released between now and the end of the year, I am going to make an early prediction and say that this film is going to be a serious contender in all major categories at the Oscars. It is a stunning tour de force and a magnificent piece of filmmaking.

The success of "The Wrestler" is surprising, given the eclectic group of people involved in creating it. It is only the second screenplay by writer Robert Siegel to make it to film. His first, "The Onion", was filmed in late 2003, was never released to theaters and was only recently released to DVD. In "The Wrestler", Siegel has created a poignant character study that explores the entire spectrum of emotions. It is an award-caliber piece of writing that will change the trajectory of Siegel's career.

Darren Aronofsky, the film's director, comes to this project with several critically acclaimed but commercially modest projects, including "Requiem for a Dream" (which earned Ellen Burstyn an Oscar nomination) and "The Fountain" (which starred his wife, Rachel Weisz alongside Hugh Jackman). With this track record, Aronofsky was able to secure a relatively small budget of $7,000,000.00 to bring "The Wrestler" to the silver screen.

Using a fine guiding hand, Aronofsky succeeds in creating a film that has the gritty realism of the original "Rocky", and the emotional impact of "Million Dollar Baby". At times, the scenes unfolding onscreen are difficult to watch - this is a testament to Aronofsky's ability as a director to plunge the audience into the gritty underbelly of the lead character's journey.

In the end, however, it is the superb acting performance by Mickey Rourke that provides the icing for this well-constructed cinematic cake. After watching Rourke's performance, it is unimaginable that to me Nicolas Cage was originally tapped for the lead role in this film. Only an actor like Rourke, who himself has suffered more than his share of kicks from the boot of life, would have had the experience and the appearance to step into this role. In Randy, Rourke creates a character who is, all at once, likeable and frustrating. By the end of this film, I was emotionally invested in this character, and truly curious to see how his journey was going to end.

Rourke delivers the finest performance of his career (and that is saying a lot), and I am going to go out on a limb and say that he will earn the best actor Oscar this year (unless Heath Ledger is nominated in this category instead of the supporting category). I simply cannot fathom how any other performance is going to compete. Randy "The Ram" Robinson is a character that will be recorded in the annals of film history.

Rourke is not alone in delivering an award-caliber performance. In her role as Cassidy, a stripper who develops a relationship with Randy, Marissa Tomei also offers a clear reminder of the caliber of acting that earned her two trips to the Oscars. Evan Rachel Wood, who fills the supporting role of Randy's daughter Stephanie, guides the audience through one of the film's most emotional moments.

"The Wrestler" is one of those rare films that transcends the silver screen. For a brief moment in time, Darren Aronofsky gives his audience the opportunity to step into the world of his film's gritty lead characters. It is neither an easy nor a comfortable journey, but it is one that is well worth taking.

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