“Foxcatcher” – A Review

18 Nov

foxcatcherSidney Lumet’s 1975 film, Dog Day Afternoon subscribes to the idea that truth is stranger than fiction, or as a great man once said, “You can’t make this shit up.” Dog Day is based on the true story of a man who robs a Brooklyn bank to pay for his boyfriend’s sex-change operation, which you really can’t make up. What differentiates Lumet’s film from other “based on a true story” movies is its tone. While not technically a comedy,  Dog Day, revels in the bizarre, circus-like atmosphere of the day. If it were a simple, straight-up retelling of a story, it would have premiered Sunday night on ABC as a movie-of-the-week. Lumet, however, elevates the story to social commentary and satire.

Director Bennett Miller has done something similar with his film Foxcatcher. Instead of turning it into a dark comedy, however, he has taken a series of true events and transformed them into a real American horror story. A dark, disturbing mindfuck, Foxcatcher is one of the creepiest films you will see in years, as well as one of the best acted.

The movie revolves around two Olympic wresting brothers, Mark and Dave Schulz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) who are recruited by multimillionaire John du Pont (Steve Carrell) to train at his large Delaware estate, Foxcatcher Farm. Du Pont’s relationship with Mark is one of fraudulent mentorship and phony paternalism; with Dave it’s more adversarial. Mark, as played by Tatum, is a manchild, a hulking mess of repressed anger, perfectly malleable to du Pont’s desires. Dave is less taken in by the heir to one of America’s oldest fortunes. Arguably the only normally functioning of the three, Dave is married with kids, and sees right through du Pont’s scheming. But as du Pont understands, everyone has a price.

Du Pont, as portrayed by Carrell (going full-on creepy-Robin Williams), is both a privileged megalomaniac, and a pathetic momma’s boy. It is easy to both despise the man for his flippant use of money and power, and feel sorry for someone who is who he is because of the fortune of his family. Without his money, du Pont could easily be the weird guy on the subway giving you extremely detailed directions on how to get to Queens. He is an oddball, Crazy Uncle John at Thanksgiving with his theories about 9/11 and UFOs. It should be noted that in real life many believe du Pont to have been a paranoid schizophrenic. There are plenty of true incidents that could point to this fact; most of these do not actually make it into the film. The movie, instead, paints du Pont as odd without clinically diagnosing him as anything more.

Contrast du Pont with Mark Schulz, an Olympic gold medalist who subsists on fast food and ramen noodles and has always lived in his big brother’s shadow. Along comes rich man du Pont who says, “Come stay at my estate and train at my state-of-the-art facilities.” For Mark – no friends, no family, no money – it’s an opportunity even he is not stupid enough to turn down, not realizing that he is merely a tool for du Pont to get what he wants.  

One could easily say: “See, this is how the one-percent fuck over the rest of us,” is what the film is going after. And in a way it is, but to describe Foxcatcher simply as a film examining class divisions misses the deeper elements of the what Miller and his screenwriters are doing. Du Pont himself is a remarkably sympathetic character, especially because he is what amounts to be the villain in Foxcatcher. He sees himself as a patriot, prefers to be called Golden Eagle, and desires to make “America great again.” His goal is to actually be the coach to these players, to be a leader of men, but he is an amateur wrestler at best, always an outsider looking in. He wants to be important, to be cheered. And because he is rich, it is easy for him to buy importance and adulation, unlike the Schulz brothers who have to earn it through, you know, hard work.

So, Foxcatcher explores not only how power and privilege can destroy those without those qualities, but also how it blinds and hobbles those drowning in them, simply by making them slaves to their cloistered class advantages. Yes, in Foxcatcher we are supposed to pity the abhorrently rich. 

For much of the early parts of the film I was put off by Carrell’s depiction of du Pont. Long, snooty pauses, a schnoz reminiscent of Nicole Kidman’s Oscar winner for The Hours, an actorly affectation that smacked too much of a comedian trying to be creepy. But as the movie progressed, I understood that it was more an affectation of du Pont rather than that of the actor portraying du Pont. Most of du Pont is in fact affectation or construction. He is a man who buys what others struggle for. He has barricaded himself within his estate, within his class, has crafted for himself a cornucopia of personae – coach, mentor, leader, father – and hired talent to portray his underlings. He is more construct than man, and that is what is so pitiable about him. It is easy to contrast him with Ruffalo’s Dave Schulz: one is a wealthy scion of an old money family who surrounds himself with yes men and sycophants, but no one who truly loves him; the other is a talented blue color athlete with a wife and a couple of kids who adore him.

Channing Tatum’s Mark is one of the more complex one-note characters in recent film history. Like du Pont, he has been protected from much of the fury of the outside world. Instead of a shield of money and position, it is an older brother who is always there to save him from himself and those around him. But where most of us would see just a brother’s love, Mark (aided by insinuations from du Pont) sees Dave as someone trying to keep him down. Tatum – the prototypical pretty face who never gets credit for being more than just a pretty face – shines as a man filled with resentment and anger. The scenes between him and Carrell are some of the best acted you will see in years.

Miller directs deliberately, which means slowly. The movie is about two hours and twenty minutes, and this unrushed feeling draws out the tension between the characters. You always feel that something really really bad is going to happen, you just don’t know when. Miller, who has previously directed Capote and Moneyball seems to be drawn towards odd true life stories. He’s a hands-off filmmaker, who trusts in his actors and cinematographer to get the job done. The script is a finely constructed tapestry, exploring a variety of themes: wealth, classism, the nexus of masculinity and patriotism, and the always discussion-worthy topic of nature versus nurture.

Only twice does the film falter, once near the middle when Dave suddenly becomes a far more dominant character than Mark, and – most noteworthy – the climax, which seems to come out of nowhere, and can’t quite figure out if it should be shocking or banal. It is an abrupt final ten minutes of the film, rushing in a way that the rest of the movie never does.

These miscues aside, Foxcatcher is one of those movies that will be remembered in years to come, mostly because I predict it will be the eventual Best Picture Oscar winner. In any other film, the casting of Carrell and Tatum would be assumed to be a slapsticky, summery, buddy comedy. Nothing whatsoever could be a worse description of this film.

Final Grade: A-

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