What was Darren Aronofsky doing two years ago futzing with The Fountain's abstruse mysticism when, on the evidence of The Wrestler, he should have been working on Rocky Balboa? Human flesh versus the passage of time is the theme in both pictures, though where The Fountain examined it through rhyming, symbolically loaded imagery, The Wrestler keeps things small-scaled and close, with rough-hewn, shoulder-level tracking shots cribbed, as plenty of critics have noted, from the Dardenne brothers. The setting is that circus of brutality and tinsel, the wrestling circuit, which, if you've ever watched a bout, is not that far from Aronofsky's previous science-fiction scenario. The sad clown is one Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a holdover from the '80s Wrestlemania craze, now blond-maned, swollen-bodied and broken-faced, like an aging Viking warrior. His glory days behind him, he sleeps in a New Jersey trailer park, plays Nintendo with the neighborhood kids, and, of course, faces foes in the ring. Some of the film's most disarming bits reveal the solidarity among small-time wrestlers, beefy guys chummily discussing their bone-snapping moves for the spectacle ("Don't work his leg, man. Everybody does that. Work his neck"). Afterwards, Randy visits a strip club, the wrestling ring's mirror-image of flesh on display, where a lapdancer (Marisa Tomei) links the pummeling he takes to Mel Gibson's Christ: "They beat the living fuck out of him for two hours, and he just takes it." When a particularly ghastly match lands him in the hospital with heart trouble, however, Randy is demoted from the ring to the film's lowest rung of meat, the deli counter.
The Wrestler shrewdly plays on the dual satisfaction of watching a notoriously problematic actor humbling himself for a comeback-kid role. Rourke already had a comeback of sorts as the comic-book Caliban he played in Sin City, and though he still seems to be buried under that movie's steroidal latex, the character's dissolute face and body here are all too clearly the actor's as well. His once soft visage is now battered and stitched together, and yet what used to be an emblem of rotten living has come to seem a bit... heroic. Some of the screenplay's lines milk Rourke's palooka background and misfired career ("I ain't as pretty as I used to be, but goddamn it, I'm still standing here," he addresses the audience), yet his Randy is such a vivid and physically present performance that the effect is truly rousing instead of mawkish. Of course, the idea of resurrection applies just as much to Aronofsky, himself a whiz-kid nursing the (critical) welts from an earlier folly. This may be his least gimmicky film, but his Requiem for a Dream side nevertheless manifests itself in the ring, where the body-slams are tricked out with staples, razors and barbed wire for baroque visions of corporeal abuse. The film is less successful in transcending its archetypal clichés, from the grizzled lion with a bum ticker to the noble Magdalene to the estranged, resentful spawn (Evan Rachel Wood, very shrill in some highly expendable scenes). Still, by refusing to cheapen the character's sadness and redemptive/sacrificial final leap, Rourke and Aronofsky dig up a feeling of grace that's no less true for being so freakish.
A less honest mix of "indie" grit and hoary cliché, Slumdog Millionaire shows how a critic-pleasing film can be every bit as overbearing as a crowd-pleasing one. Danny Boyle, the erratic British director, sets the story in Mumbai and goes for a mélange of splashiness and shock: The opening cuts back and forth between the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and an interrogation that incorporates waterboarding and electric jolts. The guy being tortured (Dev Patel) is a contestant on the show, he's made it to the 20-million rupee question and the police think they have a cheater and a criminal on their hands. Actually, his harsh life has made him familiar with the questions the unctuous host asks, so he proceeds to outline his Dickensian childhood, which includes seeing his mom getting killed during a race riot ("I wake up every morning wishing I didn't know the answer," he murmurs to the police chief). As a street urchin (played by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar), he narrowly escapes being forcibly recruited into a gang of blind orphans, steals from tourists at the Taj Mahal, sees his brother succumb to a life of crime, and searches for the love of his life, a little girl who grows up into the gorgeous Freida Pinto. Lacking confidence in the characters and their feelings, Boyle forces a half-assed Bollywood aesthetic on them, making the colors pop (brown skin tones, green dresses, yellow smoke -- even shit is made iridescent) and changing camera angles every two minutes. Poverty may provide the background for this ungainly fairy tale, but, as any player who had to face Regis Philbin's oily smirk will tell you, it's really all about the money. Slumdog Millionaire feels made by folks who watched Pixote and thought, "Hmmm. Needs musical montages."
No winner-takes-it-all, last-minute bonanza for Kelly Reichardt, who in Wendy and Lucy once more offers evidence of steadily (and stealthily) becoming one of the most intelligent and humane American directors. Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a young drifter "passing through" rural Oregon with her dog Lucy, her sole companion on her very long journey toward Alaska. Awakening in her beat-up car, she grabs a near-empty bag of kibble and answers the hungry pooch's gaze with a terse "I know." Briefly arrested for filching cans of dog food at the local market, she returns to find Lucy gone, and, with it, her means of coping with loneliness. The canine heartbreak inevitably brings De Sica's Umberto D. to mind, even as the film's scrupulous avoidance of self-pity (or of any kind of facile outburst, in fact) suggests Varda's Vagabond, or possibly even Japanese cinema. Reichardt occasionally still underlines (a shot of a café patron reading Sometimes a Great Nation, another of Wendy walking past a wall with "goner" written in graffiti), yet her filmmaking shows deftness and patience and an eye for stark beauty, with at least one image (the heroine silhouetted sitting on the hood of her car with a Walmart in the background) that's as evocative as a Walker Evans photograph. And then there's Williams, splendidly stripped down to fear, confusion and tenacity at the edge of the precipice. So much tacit anger, so much respect for frayed humanity -- Wendy and Lucy bruises while barely raising its voice.
Reviewed December 25, 2008.