Back in the 1980s, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was a champion professional wrestler. Now, 20 years later, he ekes out a living stacking shelves in a supermarket and performing fights for handfuls of diehard wrestling fans in high school gyms around New Jersey. However, it soon becomes clear that amateur wrestling is not just a money-making arrangement for the physically shattered ex-champ – the ring is the only place of comfort to him in a world he finds bewildering. Estranged from his teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and essentially alone in the world, Randy is a battered dreamer who lives for the thrill of the show and the adoration of his fans. As a result of a heart attack Randy is forced to evaluate the state of his life – trying to reconnect with his daughter, and striking up a blossoming romance with an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei). Yet, in spite of these glimmerings of the chance to begin a new and normal life, nothing compares to the allure of the ring and passion for a game destined to always pull Randy “The Ram” into its whirlpool world of pain and pity.

In a true case of art imitating life, Mickey Rourke finds himself in a role he was born to play – a fictional role that uncannily close to his own mis-spent career over the past two decades. Having won the Golden Globe for Best Actor last week, the actor who chucked his promising career away to become a professional boxer, now looks like a real contender to win the Best Actor award at the Oscars next month. In an interview where his candour stood as a stark contrast to the usual carefully presented Hollywood star image, Rourke explained how director Darren Aronofsky laid down the law when they first met on the set of the film. “He sits down and, for the first five minutes, he tells me how I screwed up my whole career for 15 years behaving badly. And I agreed – that’s why I haven’t worked for 15 years, and I’ve been working real hard not to make those mistakes.” Then Aronofsky delivered his ultimate promise to the actor: “He told me he’d help get me an Oscar nomination, and I believed him.”

In a comeback that even Hollywood itself couldn’t script, Rourke’s role as the washed-up wrestler looking for one last chance of redemption has touched a nerve right across America – a nerve about rebirth and fighting for a second chance that mirrors much of what the United States itself is going through at present. And not only does Rourke rise to the occasion by resurrecting the acting talent he had carelessly lost somewhere way back on the career highway, he does it with a humour and pathos that is surely destined to take its place amongst the great screen performances of the last decade. In a story that is powerfully simple and presented without artifice, The Wrestler is a metaphor for the challenges of life and how they can consume or be overcome.

It is a film perfectly placed for the crooked path the world faces in 2009, and looks to be a sure-fire Oscar winner in more than one category. “I look at these guys like Matt Damon, George Clooney, Sean Penn – bright, educated guys who understand that it’s a business and there’s politics involved,” Rourke says of his burned-out youth and wasted chances in Hollywood. “I wasn’t educated or aware enough. I thought I could get by on my raw talent. I thought I was so good I didn’t have to play the game. And I was terribly wrong.”

With a sure hand that keeps the tiller of the film inches from the schmaltz sentimentality it could so easily have fallen into, Aronfsky coaxes wonderful performances from his cast – particularly Tomei as the stripper with the heart of gold and Wood as the daughter looking for a reason to believe. Beginning with a montage of the Ram in his youthful, all-conquering heyday, the movie charts the path of broken dreams and dead-end turns of a man for whom the decades flew by in a fog of wasted chances. Randy The Ram and Mickey Rourke are mirror images of each other, each one looking for one last salvation through applause. A cracker of a movie with a feel good vibe that’s an ideal antidote for the times we live in.