Sometimes, you just have to admit that patterns crop up: this is turning into a winter of perfectly good movies that keep trying to suffocate the absolutely great movie hiding inside. Exactly three weeks ago, we were presented with the sight of Gus Van Sant playing nice for the Academy with the slightly-better-than-routine biopic Milk; today the former indie godling Darren Aronofsky gives us The Wrestler, a film with a story that had whiskers on it back in the 1940s, and a resolutely tamped-down style that feels a little bit like the director's more characteristic work every now and then, but is mostly content to purr along in a well-worn rut.

Tell me if you've heard this one: an aging wrestler starts to consider retirement, to reconnect with his estranged daughter and start up a new life with this hooker with a heart of gold (okay, so she's a stripper, but in the claustrophobic hierarchy of female representation in cinema, that basically makes her an honorary hooker). But that One Last Bout rears its ugly head, and the wrestler must decide: fade into obscurity, or take a final bow, and risk losing everything he's trying to build for himself?

Fair's fair, I didn't actually find the scenario's undeniable mustiness frustrating, so much as enchanting: I honestly adore the fact that screenwriter Robert Siegel (previously an editor of The Onion) saw fit to update the hoary old boxer/wrestler genre to a modern setting, when the first wave of American wrestling superstars that came to prominence in the early and mid 1980s are starting to hit AARP eligibility. I'm a nostalgist like that. Still, anytime a film sets itself up to be such a deliberate throwback (and therefore, entirely predictable), the filmmakers are confronted with a choice: either go all the way and do everything they possibly can to make it as perfect a throwback as possible, or turn it into a sly satire on generic convention. I simply don't think that balance is struck properly in The Wrestler, which always feels overly familiar when it should be original, and feels too radical in the places where it ought to be most conservative. I can't really defend that as anything more than a feeling, but it's something that left me vaguely unfulfilled for almost all of the film's running time.

I can't help but blame Aronofsky: I've always run more cold than hot on his films, anyway - hated π, didn't like The Fountain, was fine with Requiem for a Dream. By that standard, I guess The Wrestler is maybe his best film, and there are certainly parts that click: the film's three major wrestling scenes (two in the first hour, one in the second) are reminiscent of the boxing sequences in Raging Bull, being both extremely brutal, as well as filmed and edited in noticeably distinct styles. These are undoubtedly the formalist highlights of the movie, although there are moments throughout where a particular shot, or especially a camera movement would make me think, "aha, I am watching noted stylist Darren Aronofsky, working in an unusually sedate milieu" instead of "I am watching some yahoo with a fetish for too much digital intermediate work" (edit: upon review, I'm not certain it's DI, only that the film is bleached-out in a fairly bland way). When all is said and done, I keep coming back to the last shot of the movie, which is the best and worst of it all wrapped into one neat parcel: aggressively stylised, yet something about the particulars of the choice seems to be easy and predigested, like Aronofsky knows that we'll think it's edgy and indie and hip for him to slice things off at the exact frame he choses, but it's those things only because other edgy, indie, hip films have done it already. My annoyance at how much smarter the final shot thinks it is than is the case probably counts as a nitpick that I'm exploding out of proportion, but dammit, I found it annoying, and not for the reasons it wants to be annoying.

At any rate, it is easy to regret the director's choice (or maybe it was chosen for him, who can say?) to go cold turkey on the team of high-talent regulars he's built up over the years: cinematographer Matthew Libatique, editor Jay Rabinowitz, production designer James Chinlund. Fine, I'll spot the production design: Tim Grimes does an amazing job at filling in the corners of an impoverished existence with all the ratty details of our protagonist's trailer home, the grocery store where he works, and so forth. But Andrew Weisblum's editing is rarely as inspired as Rabinowitz's (though it's always more than merely competent), and Maryse Alberti is proficient, at least, but The Wrestler looks awfully like a whole lot of other indie films.

At this point, you are getting restless, I can see. "Tim," you ask, "I don't care about that stuff, tell me about Mickey Rourke!" Well, it would appear from a quick spin 'round the internet that not many other people care about the technical stuff either, which is why I led with it. But yeah, Mickey Rourke: giving an amazing performance, he single-handedly gives the movie a pulsating heart, that the director fumbles more often than not. Playing Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Rourke does not quite give the comeback that everybody is claiming that he gives; he already did that in 2005, as Marv in Sin City - but no, we mustn't give him too much credit for a genre picture, and even though The Wrestler is also a genre picture, at leas the genre isn't comic books. Still, his Randy is awe-inspiring: a gentle-spirited man who has taken too much damage to ever really be all there all at the same time, but still whole enough to know that he desperately misses human contact. It's a heartbreaking performance in the main, and full of tiny details that you want to dig out of the movie and frame. Some of my favorites: behind the deli counter, he jokes with the customers and tosses their food around like a game; in a thrift store, his whole face - his whole body - lights up with joy when he finds an absolutely gaudy jacket that he wants to buy for his daughter; he tries to convince one of the neighborhood kids who sometimes tolerate his incredible oldness to come play the old 8-bit NES game where he appears as a character. Rourke plays the role quietly, but at every moment we know precisely what animates him; it's the kind of performance that could only come from an under-appreciated performer who has waited years and years for a character this strong to play. Yes, it's as good as the hype; yes it's one of the best performances of the year, no worse than the third or fourth-best English language performance I've seen.

Holding her own against Rourke as the hooker - I mean, stripper - Marisa Tomei gives her second great performance in as many Oscar seasons (after Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) where she manages to make a flat and routine and frankly sexist character seem to be as rich as something out of Shakespeare. It's a wee tiny performance that seems doomed to obscurity, lacking any outlandish awards-baiting moments and caught in the shadow of Rourke's supernova, but absolutely the best that she could conceivably give, starting from a fairly ignoble baseline. As Randy's daughter, Evan Rachel Wood - usually a fine-to-wonderful actress - is simply petulant and crabby, sucking all the air out of what probably is meant to be the film's big emotional arc, but that's okay: the secondary arc of Randy and Tomei's Cassidy picks up the slack.

So basically: pleasantly trite script, predominately uninspired directing that sometimes flares into genius, barnburning central performance that turns the movie into one of the most transcendent character dramas of the year. All in all, I can't claim to dislike it, but I still have a definite sense that it's not any kind of masterpiece - it's a goddamn brilliant actor's showcase, but I hope we don't live in a world where that's the same thing. I will long remember Randy the Ram and be pleased to have known him, but I can't say either of those things about the routine mise en scène he's been stranded in.