REVIEW: Foxcatcher

12 11 2014

FoxcatcherTelluride Film Festival

In the opening minutes of “Foxcatcher,” a quietly quotidian montage details the routine of Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz, a wrestler living and training modestly in spite of winning gold at the 1984 Olympic Games.  The sequence concludes with him stepping behind a podium to address a less than captivated audience of elementary school students, and he begins with the line, “I want to talk about America.”

This opening remark appears to be a harbinger portending a film where director Bennett Miller will talk at us about America.  Ramming any sort of message down our throats, however, seems the last thing on Miller’s mind.  The deliberately paced and masterfully moody “Foxcatcher” provides a trove of discussion-worthy material about the dark underbelly of the world’s most powerful nation.  What Miller actually wants is to talk with us about America.

Miller works deftly within the framework of E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script, which itself feels beholden to no convention or genre. They slowly parse out information on the characters of the film, providing disturbing details and abnormal actions that do not lend themselves to easy explanation. “Foxcatcher” thrives on small moments that do not seem incredibly consequential as they occur, though their cumulative effect is quite the knockout.

The film crafted by Miller is not one of conventional capital-A “Acting.” It’s performance as being, not as much doing. While the talented trifecta of Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo still has plenty of events to live out, they function best as the shiniest components of a larger tonal machine. Miller expertly employs them to highlight the sinister undercurrents running beneath the eerie, brooding surface of “Foxcatcher.”

His proclivity for cutaways and long-held takes has a tendency to turn the characters into specimens, but such an approach also solicits active examination.  The film’s co-leads, Tatum and Carell, each carry themselves in an unconventional, magnified manner that invites peering past their appearances.  What lurks beneath are truly tormented men, each seeking a symbolic meaning system to bring them fulfillment.

Tatum Carell Foxcatcher

Tatum makes his Mark Schultz practically ape-like with a big, protruded chin.  As a muscled hulk of an sportsman, it might be tempting to let the physicality purely define this character – or even worse, hide behind the stereotype of the dumb jock.  Tatum takes those expectations, however, and hurls them out the window.  In Schultz’s borderline primal utterances and motions, a world of inner confusion and frustration shines through, forcing a serious reevaluation of not only the character but also of Tatum as a serious actor.

The same could also be said for Steve Carell as John du Pont.  The performance would still be chilling to the bone even without knowing it directly flies in the face of his comedic bona fides.  Miller often trains his camera to rest on Carell’s gaze for long stretches of time, maintaining a deeply unsettling and discomforting lock on the frightening stillness of his eyes.  These haunting glances alone give “Foxcatcher” a palpable sense of volatility.

Yet Carell’s du Pont goes far beyond just observed placidity; the “Golden Eagle,” as he calls himself, is also a soft-spoken man who ironically trades in mythological sayings.  Since he comes from a great deal of old family wealth, DuPont has the means to play out his wild fantasies.  He earnestly believes in achieving such grandiose visions such as “giving men a dream” and “giving America hope.”

Flowing from these hopes, du Pont decides to patronize the American Olympic wrestling squad, moving Schultz and the rest of his teammates to a facility at his own Foxcatcher farms.  In one sense, it is merely the latest pet project for the man who also dabbles in ornithology and philately.  He desperately seeks the attention and approval of his aging mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) with his newest passion, but she sneers at the sport’s unbecoming brutality.

du Pont suffers from more than just classic Oedipal issues, though.  “Foxcatcher” explores his complicated psychology from a number of different angles, looking at the relationship with Schultz as paternal, patriotic, friendly, and perhaps even sexual on a very submerged level.  The presence of Mark’s brother, David (Mark Ruffalo), exacerbates the tensions by serving as a competitor against Mark in the wrestling ring and for Mark outside of it.

Although his role is often in question to the characters in the film, David does provide what might be the only morsel of humanity for the audience in “Foxcatcher.”  He’s the only person clearly meant to be sympathetic, a function Ruffalo dutifully fulfills.  Apart from him, Bennett Miller’s film is rather emotionally distant.  But in a film about such large concepts as leadership and American identity, his technically precise deployment of style and mood to tell the story strikes just the right chord.

The gloomy, pensive atmosphere pervades every frame and does not clear up when the credits roll.  Instead, it packs up and leaves with the viewer.  B+3stars

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5 responses

28 11 2014
polarbears16

Seeing this today, and really looking forward to the performances. Great review.

28 11 2014
Marshall

Enjoy the film, and I’ll be excited to read your write-up!

8 12 2014
polarbears16

Finally saw this. Good film with a very deliberate mood and style, and it works most of the time. I feel like it stumbles a bit in terms of exploring du Pont’s character, though.

Ruffalo definitely gave my favorite performance in this, and that interview scene was my favorite scene.

9 12 2014
Marshall

Honored that you remembered to come back and leave a comment! I agree with your assessment, it is not perfect but certainly leaves a mark. Looking forward to your write-up!

9 12 2014
polarbears16

No problem! Write up is already up, by the way.

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