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Randy “The Ram” Robinson tries his damnedest to continue living in the past as the titular washed-up pro fighter in The Wrestler. A hero in the ’80s, Randy is a self-described “old, broken-down piece of meat” 20 years later, estranged from his daughter, evicted from his trailer, spending what little money he earns between a supermarket-warehouse job and sparsely attended reunion matches on a stripper who’s the closest thing he has to a girlfriend. He’s a mess emotionally and physically but manages to mask both with a steady diet of hair metal and pills. When Randy has a heart attack, though, the jig is ostensibly up. “Doc, I’m a professional wrestler,” he says. The cardiologist replies, “That’s not a good idea.”

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Darren Aronofsky’s buzzed-about drama delivers two surprises: For one, it’s linear, which coming from the director of head-tripping cult favorites such as Pi and Requiem for a Dream is rather stunning. More impressive, though, is Mickey Rourke’s heartbreaking performance as the Ram. Like Gran Torino’s Walt, Randy looks like a don’t-fuck-with-me bear of a man, hulking, scarred, with a deep tan and long bleached hair that suggest he may really believe in his faux-wrestling caricature. His battles are brutal to watch, with Aronofsky’s camera banging around as if caught between the fighters and picking up every split-open wound and tortured breath.

Behind the scenes, though, we see that the wrestlers are friendly toward one another, planning out their moves while the elders give the newcomers encouragement. And Randy himself is endearing and sympathetic despite his myriad screw-ups. Much of the film is spent shadowing Randy as he plays videogames with the neighborhood kids, goes to the tanning salon, and stocks his personal pharmacy. There’s little soundtrack besides the groans and huffs that indicate his myriad pains; we occasionally see his hearing aid.

Randy’s current, mostly blue-collar life may not seem all that sad if it weren’t for the posters and flashbacks that tell of his past popularity: When he’s really hurting for money, for example, and agrees to take a front-of-the-shop stint behind the deli counter, Randy reluctantly puts on the tag that bears his given name, Robin, and wraps a hairnet around his bun. He stands before the plastic dividing the stockroom from the floor, hearing a crowd’s roar. Then he passes through and it’s, “Here’s your baloney, pal.”

There’s not a whole lot to Robert D. Siegel’s script besides Randy’s awkward baby steps toward enriching his life, an endeavor which mainly involves reacquainting himself with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, delivering all the fury of an abandoned teen) and trying to establish a real relationship with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), the stripper who enjoys his company but charges for lap dances anyway. Rourke’s Randy is such a strong, charming presence, though, that you really don’t need any more plot to hold your interest. This piece of meat may still get too drunk, forget commitments, and lose his temper, but he also jokes around with the deli’s customers, is proud that he found a hideous jacket with his daughter’s initial that he thinks is a “perfect” gift, and busts out a huge smile when he hears Ratt while on a date with Cassidy, interrupting their conversation with a “Whoa, hell ya!” and a little dance.

Just when Randy seems to be adjusting to a non-fighting life, though, it becomes obvious that he doesn’t know how to accept these small pleasures as enough. The Wrestler’s non-ending will leave certain viewers frustrated and is open to interpretations both wrenching and optimistic. That Randy will stick in your mind as stubbornly as the chorus of “Round and Round” is, however, quite certain.