Dir. Darren Aronofsky
(R) ★ ★ ★ ★

Reportedly, Vince McMahon, the chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment, isn’t a fan of The Wrestler. If I were him, I wouldn’t be either. Consider one of the film’s most lacerating scenes: washed up grappler Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), who in the ‘80s was a superstar not unlike Hulk Hogan, attends a fan event with his fellow old-timers, and the camera observes them pointedly. They occupy wheelchairs, or wear braces for body parts that don’t work like they used to. One has a colostomy bag on his ankle — Peter O’Toole wore one of those in Venus in 2006; is there a more conspicuous indignity than to have your body fluids drained in such a way, for all to see? This is hardly the retirement plan of champions.

Consider another scene, in which Randy participates in a particularly violent brand of hardcore wrestling that involves shattered window panes, barbed wire, and staple guns. The film cuts between the bout and its aftermath, during which Randy’s wounds are treated; director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) focuses on the physical, rotating the camera around Randy’s battered torso, not shying away from closeups of the minute carnage. An earlier scene compares his battle scars to The Passion of the Christ, and though Aronofsky is as attentive to suffering as Mel Gibson was, Randy ain’t no Christ — he suffers alone in a dingy locker room, and there’s no great redemption to be found there. This is a remarkable sequence, our first indication that we are in the midst of a great film.

I do not believe the WWE is like this; they have too much money. But this is what your career might look like if you don’t make it to the WWE, or if you make it there but don’t last. Vince McMahon doesn’t want you to see this film because you can’t look at wrestling the same way once you’ve seen it, and if you can, you should see it again. Major League Baseball recruits its players from farm teams — pro wrestling gets them from the slaughterhouse.

But The Wrestler isn’t set up as an exposé. That’s just what happens in the process of telling its story. Written by Robert D. Siegel and directed by Aronofsky with gritty realism, it’s a character study about a man at the end of a career he loves and unprepared for the next stage of his life. After an event, he collapses, and when he wakes up the doctors tell him he had a near-fatal heart attack and bypass surgery. He’ll never wrestle again. But what will he do instead?

He frequents a strip club, where one of the dancers, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), is kind to him. He pays for her company, but he means more to her than the time he pays for. They have something in common: When we first meet her, Cassidy is entertaining a group of twentysomethings who make cruel jokes about her age; like Randy she peddles her flesh, is past her prime, and knows it. There is a touching scene where Cassidy offers a lap dance to the club’s patrons, and upon being rejected she makes a date with Randy. These two characters have found in each other the only person left who’s buying what they’re selling.

Randy has a daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood, the fierce young actress from Thirteen), whom he abandoned as a child. She hates him, perhaps rightly so, but he attempts to make amends. It may be his last chance to be a father to her. He has a job stocking a supermarket. One day he is promoted to the deli counter — that may be the limit of his career mobility.

Aronofsky frequently shoots Randy from behind, the way you might follow a prize fighter before he emerges in an arena to thunderous applause. There’s a scene like that here: Randy walks through corridors, while on the soundtrack we hear the distant cheers of the crowd. When he emerges through the plastic curtain leading to a grimy kitchen, instead of applause the cheering dissipates and reality sets in — this is his life now, and Aronofsky subverts the visual language of sports films to underline its sadness.

The film is revealing about the behind-the-scenes workings of wrestling shows. I like the detail of early scenes, where combatants are assigned their matches and then discuss choreography. A funny moment shows the wrestlers from two different matches discussing which team would do the neck move and which would do the leg move. Wrestlers communicate secretly in the ring, choreographing on the spot or just bantering. Randy seems to enjoy the small-circuit camaraderie; he was once like those young up-and-comers and knows their dreams by heart.

I have yet to discuss the performance of Mickey Rourke — saving the best for last. I did not know his personal history before seeing the film, only that it was quite a history. According to Wikipedia, he suffered his share of legal troubles — more than his share, I suppose — including an arrest for spousal abuse in 1994 and DUI as recently as 2007. He was trained as a boxer and left acting in the early 1990s to pursue a career. He suffered myriad injuries and perhaps drew from those experiences for his scenes in the ring and in the locker room, to which he brings great physical authenticity. He carries himself heavily, wearily, expressing the weight of physical and emotional damage through sad, distant eyes and revealing a fragile soul in scenes with Tomei and Wood. Working from Siegel’s deeply penetrating script, he presents Randy as a man on the razor’s edge of self-destruction and never quite sure which way he wants to fall. This is a performance that merits comparisons to Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.

Three years ago, Rourke appeared in the film that set the stage for his comeback: Sin City, in which he played a boozing ex-con seeking vengeance for the death of a prostitute who showed him affection. It was the first in the trend of movies replicating the visual aesthetic of their comic book antecedents, and it remains the gold standard. It takes a strong actor to compete with such aggressive stylization, and Rourke’s performance did just that; he elevated his storyline from comic book pulp to a mournful ode to a man with one thing left to fight for. He won the supporting-actor award from the Chicago Film Critics and Online Film Critics. He’ll get an Oscar nomination for The Wrestler, playing another man fighting to salvage the remains of his life. It’s one of the best performances of the year in one of the best films of the year.