A film review by Craig J. Koban January 1, 2015

RANK: #18

FOXCATCHER jjj
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2014, R, 134 mins.

 

Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz  /  Steve Carell as John du Pont  /  Mark Ruffalo as David  /  Schultz  /  Sienna Miller as Nancy Schultz  /  Vanessa Redgrave as Jean du Pont

Directed by Bennett Miller  /  Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman

Bennett Millerís FOXCATCHER is one of he bleakest and most chilling reality based sports films that Iíve ever seen.  So many examples in the genre are genuinely moving and uplifting, but Miller takes a decidedly different course with his portrayal of John du Pont, a millionaire heir to the Du Pont family fortune that just happened to also be a sports enthusiast and amateur wrestling coach.  His Foxcatcher farm Ė for which the film takes its name Ė was a wrestling training facility in the 1980ís and 1990ís where he hoped to train sponsored athletes to achieve Olympic glory.  Du Pont was a man that seemingly had it all. 

Then he became a convicted murderer and died in prison in 2010. 

FOXCATCHER, if anything, is a sad tragedy on multiple fronts.  Itís also a deeply intimate portrayal of the struggles between the economic classes Ė the haves and have nots Ė which certainly still has resonance today.  Miller, beyond all other imperatives, seems mostly fascinated with the psychopathic leanings of human nature that can make people in isolated and affluent privilege snap without warning.  FOXCATCHER is a sports film on a cursory level, but its really more about the destabilization of sanity and how a person born into vast wealth exerts his manipulative control over those beneath him on the economic ladder in unhealthy and deeply unnerving ways.  There have been countless sports films Ė some fact-based, some not Ė that have honed in on the microcosm of the mentor/student relationship, but FOXCATCHER is rare for how uncompromisingly dark, alarming and scary it is in showing the warped bond between sponsor and athlete. 

It should be noted that Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye (SOMETHING WILD) and Dan Futterman (CAPOTE) have opted to condense the real events here into a more streamlined timeline (the events in the film actually took place over the course of a decade, but are effectively reduced down to what appears to be a few years).  It opens in 1987 and we are introduced to Mark Schultz (in a never been better career high performance by Channing Tatum), a soft spoken, introverted, and desperately broke amateur wrestler that did achieve Olympic glory by winning a gold medal in the 1984 games.  Now, heís struggling to make a living while training for the upcoming world championships and hopefully the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.  Mark has a close, but sometimes tension fraught relationship with his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who trains his younger sibling.  There are times when the two brothers reveal and communicate their anxieties regarding the other not with words, but with grappling maneuvers on the matt. 

 

 

Out of the blue, Mark receives a phone call from a representative of Du Pont (an unrecognizable Steve Carell, buried under thick makeup), who was at the time one of the richest men in America.  Du Pont wants to persuade Mark to leave home and relocate to his vast Pennsylvanian mansion and training facility where he hopes to train and prepare him for the Olympics.  Upon meeting Du Pont Ė who comes off as socially aloof and disturbingly idiosyncratic Ė Mark is offered a place of residence and a $25,000 per year salary, which for the downtrodden athlete seems like the deal of a lifetime.  Mark quickly agrees to Du Pontís request, and right from the beginning of his training at his Foxcatcher compound things seemÖoff...and then everything goes off the rails when Du Pont begins to introduce Mark to his peculiar tastes in military weapons, alcohol and drugs, which leads to Mark facing training setbacks.  Du Pont manages to convince Mark's brother to come to the compound and help train and settle Mark back on the right path, but it soon becomes clear that Du Pont is a power hungry control freak that micromanages the Schultz brothers in unsavory and ultimately dangerous ways.

This is not Millerís first foray into the sports genre, as he previously helmed the brilliant MONEYBALL, which focused on the backstage draft politics of putting a winning Major League baseball team on the field.   FOXCATCHER, to a large degree, is also a behind-the-scenes chronicling of coaching winning athletes, but the sport of wrestling here almost becomes a secondary element to the downward spiral and tragic consequences of Du Pontís toxic bond with the Schultz brothers.  Unlike just about all other sports biopics, FOXCATCHER is most concerned with maintaining a systematic mood of eerie and disquieting dread throughout.  Millerís film is an astonishingly quiet one and lacks flash and style.  Camera setups linger on the characters for an uncomfortable amount of time (even well after theyíve spoken) and very little, if any, of a tangible musical score can be heard throughout.  Millerís deliberately understated aesthetic trappings here serves the material well: he wants us to experience and feel the unease of Du Pontís presence throughout the film.  

Much as been said of Carellís radical career transformation in the film.  Calling his performance a ďgame changerĒ for the staunchly comedic actor would certainly be apt.  He digs deep into the warped psyche of Du Pont and plays him as a man with a meager and unthreatening faÁade that just happens to harbor unpardonably treacherous proclivities deep inside.  Carellís wisest choice in playing Du Pont is to accentuate him as a man of distressing stillness; he moves so little, but communicates so much with penetrating stares when his overall body language seems to hide everything.  There are times, though, when the makeup utilized to physically transform Carell into Du Pont kind of betrays the performance a bit; it's so grotesque and over-the-top that it draws needless attention to itself.  Itís a double edged sword in a way because it allows Carell to disappear into his character, but at times the facial appliances make him look like a comic book villain.  Nonetheless, Carell crafts one of the most frightening portraits of simmering menace Iíve seen in a film in a long time. 

As resoundingly strong as he was in the film, I found myself gravitating to Tatum's and Ruffaloís performances a bit more, mostly because they seem more grounded and relatable.  Ruffalo has always been a rock solid actor with a less-is-more knack for inhabiting his characters, and he certainly portrays the complex whirlwind of emotions as Dave, a man that loves his brother and steadfastly supports him, but has grave misgivings about his employer in Du Pont.  Tatum is someone that Iíve come down hard on in the past in terms of his dramatic turns (his talents have lent themselves better to comedies than dramas), but he arguably gives the filmís finest performance as his naÔve, insecure, soft spoken, but ferociously ambitious wrestler that will stop at nothing to attain glory on the matt.  Markís character arc is arguably the trickiest, but itís a testament to Tatum's skills how he fully immerses himself in the role and plays him with such an unassuming focus, a raw physicality and low-key tenacity. 

Where FOXCATCHER misfires, I think, is in the area of fully developing the Du Pont character himself, which seems odd considering the tour de force performance by Carell contained within.  We simply donít learn much about the man, who he is, where he came from, and what caused his psychological break from reality.  There are hints at his fractured relationship with his wheelchair-bound mother (played well by Vanessa Redgrave, but in a largely undeveloped role) and his constant yearning to please her.  Alas, this whole undercurrent of the film is scarcely hinted at and probed.  Du Pontís overt level of patriotism seems established with clarity, but there are other elements to the character that are left vaguely on the sidelines, like his repressed homosexual leanings towards his athletes, Mark in particular.  Thereís a potential erotic component to Du Pontís desire to own and possess Mark, but itís dealt with haphazardly and in fleeting glimpses at best. 

Still, FOXCATCHER emerges as an compulsively watchable sports biopic that marries the unlikely elements of amateur wresting with that of a bizarre and hauntingly depressing true crime story of a rich manís descent into moral corruption that explodes with heartbreakingly violent consequences.  There are times when Millerís film will, no doubt, causes fidgety restlessness and unease in viewers, which is the premeditated intent.  FOXCATCHER is not one of those rosy and inspiring tales of an sports underdog achieving excellence.  By the end of the film you gain a sense that no one has won or achieved anything on their journey towards the top and some lives have been affected in incalculably damaging ways.  Thatís what ultimately makes FOXCATCHER so powerfully and hypnotically intriguing.

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