After winning top honors at the Venice Film Festival, Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler rapidly became the must-see of the Toronto International Film Festival, with huge lines at the press and industry screening this afternoon seemingly unaffected by the news that Fox Searchlight had purchased the film. After seeing The Wrestler for myself, I feel the need to extend a note of caution about the film, which sailed into Toronto buoyed by advance raves for Mickey Rourke's performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a low-level professional wrestler -- and we soon see how really, both those words could be in quotation marks -- whose '80s glory days are long over, scraping by at low-level, low-paying matches until a heart attack forces him to leave the ring and look at his life in the shadow of death. Many have already written about the parallels between Mickey Rourke and the swaggering, scarred wrestler he plays -- early success, fame and notoriety, a series of mis-steps and mistakes taking it all away bit by bit as the years advanced -- and the charge Rourke's own rise and fall offers a filmmaker like Aaronofsky looking to explore ruin and redemption.
But don't believe the hype -- or, more importantly, look past it; if a complicated, messy personal life were all it took to deliver a great performance, Paris Hilton and O.J. Simpson would have more Oscars than Katharine Hepburn. Rourke's work as Randy is physical, invested, powerful and sprawling -- but it's also quiet, sad and hauntingly wounded, too. And The Wrestler offers viewers far more than just Rourke's performance -- which, it must be said, is excellent -- if they're willing to not flinch from what it has to say: The Wrestler is a fascinating, rich, unblinking look at the dark, hunched mean streak that lies curled and poisonous inside of so much American popular entertainment and of so much American life. It's early to say this, but The Wrestler is one of the most grimly exciting, magnetically repellent movies we've had in a long time; it's flat-out one of the best American movies of 2008.