Director Darren Aronofsky has made The Wrestler, which many critics believe to be a shoe-in at this year’s Oscars ceremony, specifically for the Best Actor category. “I went to see Angel Heart, and when the credits rolled I sat there and waited with the lights on ’til the lights came back down and the film started again,” recalls Aronofsky. “He’s such a unique talent, there’s no one like him, you know? You look into those eyes, and he’s just burning up.” Aronofsky is referring to his lead actor, Mickey Rourke, who plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a wrestler beyond his prime who wants nothing more than to be No. 1 just one more time. “He’s basically a ripped open nerve, and he’s just sizzling with emotion,” says Aronofsky. “Between action and cut there’s no one better, ’cause he just lets it go. He’s completely natural, and he’s a complete professional. He’ll keep going until you call cut.”

The Wrestler is a simple film but emotionally complex, and it has garnered accolades on the festival circuit. “The honest performance and a lens is the true thing here,” admits Aronofsky. “People react to someone being really open. All three actors did it in different ways. Mickey in every way, Marisa [Tomei] with her body and creating such complexity and depth to the character and Evan Rachel Wood really brings some personal stuff to the plate.” Rourke, rightfully lauded for his performance, believes that the film’s success can be traced back to Aronofsky. “I think Darren is the main reason that this thing has had the success, the integrity, everything else that came with it because of what he brought to the table,” Rourke says. “His genius and his relentless strive for perfection and hard work. He’s a director that takes chances.”

Rourke has had a tumultuous career, and it is something he acknowledges candidly. “Somebody said to me, ‘Do you think you could have given the same performance 15 years ago?’ And I said yes real quick,” Rourke pauses, “and the more I thought about it, I went, ‘Hmm. Fifteen years ago I would have maybe thrown Darren Aronofsky out of a window or told him to go fuck himself. So, I’m grateful for the changes that I’ve had to make.” The sincerity of that gratitude is evident when Rourke talks about his work in The Wrestler. “Forget all the other things I was in,” Rourke says. “This is the movie that defines everything. People say to me, ‘What’s the best movie you ever made?’ Barfly, Angel Heart, this one, that one – this is the best fucking movie I’ve ever made and the hardest movie I’ve ever made, and it’s the movie I’m most proud of. Good isn’t good enough, not when you’ve wasted 15 fucking years.

“I learned a great lesson on this movie. Maybe I learned it before, but I didn’t stick to it. I really need to work with people that I have respect for, with casts that I have respect for, with material, director, because if I don’t do that, then that’s when all hell breaks loose. This is my second chance, and this is my last chance. I’m looking toward having some longevity in my career.” Like the title character, Rourke won’t go down without a fight, and his performance is proof positive of how magnificent he can be.

The Wrestler releases in select theaters Dec. 17.