Both Gus Van Sant's Milk and Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler trace the journey of men hurtling toward inevitable devastation.
With Milk, history dictates that San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk (a Jew from Woodmere!) was shot to death on November 27, 1978 by fellow politician Dan White, so Milk's sad demise is clear from the outset; and in The Wrestler, screenwriter Robert D. Siegel leaves us with a decrepit old wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, body tenuously held together by pills, booze, and wire, leaping from the top ropes, likely toward a black abyss or some other dark and mysterious realm.
Though The Wrestler ends with a certain hopeful ambiguity and Milk a cold finality (with only a sprinkling of semi-optimism based on overall accomplishment), Milk is the brighter film, the better film, and it's star, Sean Penn, pulls off the real comeback. The Wrestler's Mickey Rourke is receiving all the hype and glory, but Penn delivers the tough guy gone sensitive performance of the season. (To be honest, Rourke actually comes in third behind Penn and Jean Claude Van Damme for JCVD).
It is rather astounding that Penn and Rourke will be competing for Best Actor awards across the board in 2008 (although deserving, Van Damme has not the credibility). Rourke is only four years older than Penn yet because of his relative absence, hard living, and surgically enhanced features, he seems almost ancient, as if from another era (if not dimension). When both young, brooding actors were coming up in the early 80's one could have imagined promising careers for both and that they would be competing for the juiciest roles in Hollywood for decades to come. In 1982, each starred in a major milestone movie; Rourke in Barry Levinson's Diner and Penn in Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and each followed up with critically acclaimed performances in more serious fare. But Rourke threw it away somewhere in the late 80's, allegedly due to a combination of vanity and recklessness, while Penn, also guilty of personality extremes, managed to keep it together enough to c raft a world class career in the movie business. So although we love to lift up the underdog and champion the hard-luck loser, what feat is more impressive: A has-been, muscle freak, former stud lusting for one more chance in the limelight while trying to rectify a wasted life perfectly playing a has-been, muscle freak, former stud lusting for one more chance in the limelight while trying to rectify a wasted life, OR, a consummate professional actor known for playing hardened, somber, tormented men perfectly playing the exuberant, love and cheer generator that was this country's first openly gay public official. Sure, Mickey Rourke makes the better story and interview, but Sean Penn serves up the better product. And since when do we not account for range? Rourke is convincing and honest, marvelous and touching, but he's not required to channel emotions that linger far and away from the man he has become. It is Sean Penn in Milk who must create something completely foreign to his understanding and sell it as if he felt Harvey Milk's struggle with every fiber of his being