Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Foxcatcher (**)

Directed by Bennett Miller


Anyone unfamiliar with the John du Pont-Schultz brothers story should take this fair warning: this review contains spoilers.

Bennett Miller is an actor's director, unafraid to let his leading men (and so far, it has always been men) take the spotlight. His movies seem to lack a singular voice, and in the case of his second film, Moneyball, the movie's star (Brad Pitt) probably had more to do with the finished product than he did. His third film is Foxcatcher, a chilly true story about an eccentric rich man and his obsession with competitive wrestling. The movie is closer to the detached iciness of Miller's first film, Capote, which starred Philip Seymour Hoffman in an Oscar-winning performance as the famed author researching his masterpiece, In Cold Blood. Both Capote and Foxcatcher deal with a crime, but cannot be called, necessarily, a crime film. They're both too preoccupied with biography to really be all too exciting of a thriller. With Capote, you had Hoffman's uncanny performance, which went beyond the simple mimicry of most Hollywood biopics and became a fascinating portrait of disintegration. In a lot of ways, Foxcatcher is trying to accomplish the same thing, but it doesn't have the kind of electrical performance on the caliber of Hoffman's work. Miller is trying hard here to form allusions to the terrors of capitalism and the contrast between high and low society. But to what end? Foxcatcher speaks loudly, but doesn't seem to correspond anything meaningful to its audience, and for all that Miller is trying here, he still expects the actors to do most of the heavy lifting.

The movie's big hook is the casting of one of America's best funnymen, Steve Carell, in the dark dramatic role of John E. du Pont, a millionaire member of the esteemed du Pont family. John lives on his reserved 800-acre estate, named Foxcather, with his decrepit mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave). Equipped with a prosthetic nose and a quivering voice, Carell plays du Pont as a consistently unsettling (occasionally downright unpleasant) presence whose mommy issues give way to an incredibly inflated sense of entitlement. He translates these feelings through long, detached glances and unnatural pauses in between statements like he's frequently forgetting what he means to say next and must regroup to come up with it. Carell is a terrific talent, known for his brilliant comedic work, but Foxcatcher is miles away from The 40-Year-Old Virgin and The Office and, quite frankly, the performance here isn't very good. Carell has shown in smaller roles like in Little Miss Sunshine and Dan In Real Life that he can succeed in dramatic arenas as long as he is given good actors to volley with, but Miller needs him to rule the show here. Unfortunately, Carell is not Philip Seymour Hoffman and he's not Brad Pitt. Carell's charisma can take him very far, but the character of du Pont takes it all away from him. What we're left with is an actor asked to carry a whole lot in a role that plays to none of his strengths. With the heavy makeup and mannered posture, Carell emotes nothing but enduring creepiness and the film needs a lot more to get its point across.

Carell has the stand-out role but the protagonist of the film is actually played by Channing Tatum, who has taken his perfected man ape persona and is now playing it for tragedy instead of the usual comedy. He plays Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, a gold medal winner in the 1984 games who still, nonetheless, is overshadowed by his equally skilled brother, David (Mark Ruffalo). David is a wrestling coach at a local university, and Mark is his sparing partner. Where David was born with a winning personality and a very general sweetness and likability, Mark is reserved and without much to say. David is often speaking for both of them. Post gold medal life has not been total splendor for Mark. He scrapes by with the money he gets for speaking at elementary schools and lives alone eating bowls of ramen noodles. Things turn for Mark when he receives a call from the du Pont estate asking him to come to the Foxcatcher ranch in order to talk with John about an unknown request. Mark goes without asking too many questions and when he finally meets John in the du Pont family library, John is a soft-spoken, cowering figure. He tells Mark of his love of wrestling and his vision for the future of USA wrestling. John offers to fund a state-of-the-art training facility right on Foxcatcher where he can personally oversee the development of another Gold medal-winning wrestling team. He sees the Schultz brothers as the key to making that happen.

David has no interest in going to Foxcatcher, since he'd rather not uproot his family from their home, but Mark jumps in and ends up moving into the Foxcatcher guest house. The estate is gloomy, vast without too many people inside. The sun never shines and it always seems to be on the verge of torrential rain. When John learns that it will be Mark on his own without David, he's solemnly disappointed. He doesn't accept it as a failure as much as a postponement - he's not someone who's used to not getting what he wants. John allows Mark to pick his own team where they train in the fully-stocked gym which John has supplied them with. John's relationship with Mark becomes more and more peculiar, as John essentially forces himself into a friendship. He has Mark coach him in wrestling, and he even writes a speech for Mark in which he calls John a "father figure". After Mark wins the gold medal at the World Championships, John now feels entitled to every aspect of Mark's life. Mark, whether it be out of pity or guilt for the money John has given him, allows John to manipulate him with drugs and more money, and even occasionally with inappropriate advances (the film never shows it explicitly, but it's quite clear du Pont is a repressed homosexual). Once David finally does join the Foxcatcher team, the relationship between Mark and John has reached a tipping point, and Mark hopes his dependable brother can help him escape the quickly suffocating situation.

The relationship between John du Pont and the Schultz brothers ended in horrible tragedy when John shot and killed David in the driveway of the home David was living in on the Foxcatcher ranch. This happened in 1997, nine years after Mark retired from competitive wrestling in 1988 after failing to win another Olympic gold medal. The movie seems to make the point that Mark's retirement and subsequent fleeing of Foxcatcher is what led to John murdering David, which can very possibly be true, but considering the span of time between the two events, it's not incorrect to say that Foxcatcher misleads the audience into believing things that don't have a whole lot of root fact. But this is the folly of "based on a true story", and movies shouldn't be expected to match word-for-word and action-for-action with what their based on. I only bring it up because it is one in a series moments throughout the film which only highlight how unremarkable the story is. For all of Miller's posturing, the film's comments on the rich, powerful John du Pont exploiting the working class Mark Schultz, both professionally and sexually, is only on the peripheral. It's obsession with images of Americana rang hollow for me. This is simply the story of something tragic that happened one time, and nothing in this film - not its lead performances, not its screenplay, not its direction - stood out as unique to me in any meaningful way. It's visual aesthetic recalled the great Alan J. Pakula (Klute, All The President's Men), a master of understatement. But Foxcatcher doesn't feel understated, it's simply dull.

Foxcatcher does have individual moments that work, and almost all of them deal with the splendid performance from Mark Ruffalo as David. Tatum's performance here is so mannered and so purposefully neanderthal that it feels overdone, but the performance does exceed when he shares the screen with Ruffalo who does a tremendous job of translating a brotherly love which transcends even Mark's questionable behavior with du Pont. Watching the two brothers wrestle, Tatum and Ruffalo both wonderfully show one of the few ways that these brothers can show each other affection. In what is maybe the film's best scene, David is placed in front of a camera and asked to wax poetic on the incredible influence of John du Pont's leadership for Team Foxcatcher. It's a long, uncomfortable scene that ends with the video's director essentially telling him to simply call du Pont his mentor, even though he's anything but. The film's violent ending is subdued like the rest of the film, and it's haunting in its realism - none of the characters seem to believe what is happening is actually happening. It recalled the best moments of Capote and showed that Miller can craft exciting sequences that suck the audience in. These moments are few and far between in Foxcatcher which wastes too much time meandering to really be about anything. The film's release was delayed a whole year for editing trouble, and there are times when it showed. I did very much want to like the film, but it felt vapid. It's performances are strong, but they each seem to be serving different agendas. It's a movie that desperately wants purpose, but can't seem to find it.

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