Christian Bale lost 28kg in four months, dropping to 54kg by eating a can of tuna or an apple per day. Daniel Day Lewis studied Czech, broke two ribs by hunching over for weeks, learned to live off the land, and took lessons as an apprentice butcher. And Robert DeNiro worked as a New York taxi driver for three months, boxed competitively, and gained a third of his body weight.
Mickey Rourke – albeit inadvertently – spent close on 10 years, not just preparing for, but almost living the life of his latest role. Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson is a professional wrestler desperately clinging to his ’80s glory days, even though his career and personal life are just as broken as his body.
His college-going daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) wants nothing to do with her deadbeat dad. The stripper he’s got the hots for (Marisa Tomei) sees him as just another paying customer. The pittance he earns as a supermarket packer isn’t enough to see him through the days between his weekend wrestling bouts. And the appearance fees from those sideshow grappling sessions in rundown gym halls and community centres just don’t cover expenses: tanning, hairstyling, muscle supplements, and the rent (in that order).
Certainly Rourke never ended up living in a trailer park, suffering a heart attack or relying on a battered hearing aid but there are obvious parallels with his own fall from grace. And the actor, who pissed his acting career away before stepping into the boxing ring for five embarrassing years, relives his time in the Hollywood wilderness to full effect here.
Whether it’s the slight grimace as he tapes his knee before a fight or the contrition with which he approaches his daughter, Rourke isn’t just acting. He’s become Randy ‘The Ram’, someone who screws up badly and repeatedly, someone who – despite his gradual sense of self-awareness – has little idea of how to live life outside the ring, and yet someone we can root for.
But this is no underdog-done-good ‘Rocky’ melodrama. His star’s pitch perfect performance has allowed director Darren Aronosfsky to use a lo-fi documentary style that, through its simplicity, only magnifies the silent despair in the wrestler’s eyes and the simple honesty of the bare bones screenplay.
Not unlike a choreographed wrestling match, the script relies on obvious clichés – the parallels between wrestler and stripper, two performers past their prime; the showdown with the daughter; the final act of defiance. These aren’t flaws. Beyond opening the curtain on a previously unseen world of camaraderie and mutual respect, ‘The Wrestler’ is something you just can’t fake: a universal story, truthfully told.
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.