There's something to be said for the pleasure of being surprised by a film, or a book, or even a discussion, about a topic you're not that interested in. It means that the treatment of it, the thought put into it, or the human drama of the situation transcends your own personal likes and dislikes and I, for one, enjoy that sort of surprise. When a film does it with a quiet sort of grace, it's even better.
The Wrestler is Darren Aronofsky's fourth feature film and it achieves the above with simplicity above all else. Just look at the title. A description of the plot doesn't really get across what this movie is about: a pro-wrestler, now fallen on hard times, plots a comeback, befriends a stripper, attempts to get in touch with his adult daughter, and faces the medical consequences of his lifestyle. But that's not the point, because what this movie is about is watching him interact with his world. It doesn't matter what you think about wrestling, because especially in the hands of Mickey Rourke Randy "The Ram" Robinson (not his real name) has an interesting story, worth watching.
It seems to me that Aronofky's chief move here was to direct a movie he hadn't written. While I enjoyed Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, for different reasons, I sense that in his own hands this story (had he chosen to tell it) would have included far too much explanation and imposed meaning. We would have had to know how Randy got to this point, how he lost his daughter, and what it all amounts to in the grand scheme. Instead, we are only shown these things, and left to figure them out on our own. Parallels between the wrestling ring, the topless bar and the deli counter are there, and unmissable, but no conclusions are drawn for the viewer. Likewise, the film maintains a careful balance between showing the artificiality of wrestling along with the severe physical toll it takes. "Wrestling is fake" is a common refrain, but only half the story. And rarely have I seen violence--the relatively "minor" violence of the "fake" wrestling ring--portrayed with so little glorification and, at the same time, so little exaggeration. Again, nothing is shoved in your face, but it's difficult to watch anyway because it's too simply real.
The one misstep I perceived was in the music, which got too saccharine and manipulative here and there for my taste. This movie is so naturalistic and low key that a swelling score (even if there are electric guitars in there) is overkill. The cinematography walked the line between arty pseudo-documentary and hanging back to let the film tell itself, and I thought it worked well. The acting, too, was good without being showy, and Rourke was perfect.
Though this film didn't necessarily touch me deeply (at the time--I think it will linger, and the more I think about it the more effective it is), I wish there were more like it, with this combination of skill, restraint, and trust in its audience. That trust paid off, if the film's reputation is any indicator, and we could use more well-made, quiet, thoughtful films about pretty much anything.