Sunday, December 7, 2014

Foxcatcher Review

(dir. Bennett Miller)

Sony Pictures Classics

“A coach is a father, a coach is a mentor, a coach has great power in an athlete's life."

     There’s an inescapable feeling of wrongness that permeates Foxcatcher, a feeling that extends beyond the terrible crime and tragedy the film depicts, reaching into the foundations of something older. The story follows Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) whose wrestling career has taken a nosedive after the 1984 Olympics, leaving him in poverty. Prone to self-abuse and feelings of inadequacy when compared to his protective older brother, and wrestling partner Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), Mark struggles to find self-worth in a country he feels has abandoned him. Everything changes for him when patriotic millionaire John du Pont hires Mark to train for the 1988 Olympic Games on his estate, Foxcatcher Farms. But DuPont’s belief in Mark, turns into a paranoid and deadly obsession. Foxcatcher is a narrative built on the delusions of the American Dream and the country’s values established in money, ownership, and violence.

    Steve Carell makes a startling transformation into du Pont, creating a frightening depiction of paranoid-schizophrenia. What’s most chilling about his performance is how calm he plays du Pont. With the exception of a memorable cocaine-fueled scene in a helicopter, he speaks in deliberate, carefully structured sentences that create the illusion of control, while his eyes, watchful and greedy, show the jealousy, depression, and madness that’s roiling in his brain. Given how extreme du Pont’s behavior went in reality (highlighted in this insightful Courier-Post article by Ryan Cormier), Carell and the script show a surprising measure of restraint. Despite his manipulation and calculated cruelty, Carell taps into du Pont’s humanity, creating a character that isn’t quite sympathetic but not entirely opaque either.

     While Carell’s performance is the most gripping in the film, Ruffalo and Tatum also give standout performances. Ruffalo, who gives life to the affable Dave Schultz, continues to be one of the most consistent actors in Hollywood, never failing to deliver. Dave is the one fixed point in the film, an unwaveringly good and honest family man, who is content with his own level of achievement. Channing Tatum, who has really come into his own as an actor in the past few years, delivers his best performance yet. Mark Schultz is a complex role, one that requires Tatum to cycle through broody bouts of depression and a childlike eagerness to please. Tatum uses Mark’s pain and dissatisfaction with his life to create a unique symmetry with du Pont. While Tatum hasn’t been attributed with a phrase as catchy as McConissance, there’s no doubt that he has steadily been experiencing a career renaissance of his own.

    Bennett Miller’s film is chilly looking, the cold gray color palate reflecting the characters’ dark state of mind.  The often striking shot compositions have a rigidity to them, emphasizing the confinement of the characters, both in terms of space and their ideals. There are strange leaps in time in a couple places, purposefully disorienting to the viewer as to how long Schultz has been under DuPont’s watch. Miller’s directorial choices create a thriller that doesn’t mount in tension but rather creates a sense of unease throughout.

    While wrestling does figure heavily into the film, Foxcatcher is more than a sports story, even if it does utilize that rise and fall aspect in many ways. Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye, and Dan Futterman are concerned with a system, similar to Miller’s concern with a system in Moneyball.  In Foxcatcher, the system is not only the professional sports arena, but also the system of old money. In du Pont’s case, that old money came from supplying weapons for the military, a fact du Pont takes great pride in. du Pont is the product of a society in which he never had to achieve anything to gain his fortune, and was never equipped physically or emotionally to even begin to achieve anything. His mental illness is fueled by a desire for recognition he believes he deserves, and the prospect of losing the respect that was never his to begin with. He is plagued by discomfort as a result of his comfort. du Pont’s delusions of being America’s greatest patriot (the golden eagle, as he refers to himself), of being a father, brother, and mentor to Mark are a result of this. He’s an absurd man, a fact the film never fails to remind you of. While I don’t want to overstate or misrepresent the film’s themes, I believe Miller’s film speaks to modern issues of fame, fortune, and ultimately to the impossibility of achieving the ever-shifting American Dream.

    Foxcatcher handles big ideas, speaking to social concerns, making the film an innately personal movie, just not personal in the way we expect biopics to be. It allows for many character motivations to exist in subtext, offering more to think about than these “based on a true story” films usually do. The film offers such thematic insights that it’s hard not to believe it’s not a work of fiction. This doesn’t downplay the triumphs, evils, and losses of those involved with and effected by the events, but speaks to the depth of human desire. Foxcatcher is uniquely impactful and perceptive in its aim.

Grade: A

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