REVIEW: Foxcatcher [2014]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 134 minutes | Release Date: November 14th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Bennett Miller
Writer(s): E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman

“John du Pont is … kind of a mentor to me”

Now here’s a film with immaculate construction in production design, sound design, acting, and direction. The only thing Foxcatcher lacks is the breathing room to stand as a cohesive whole worthy of the talent pouring its heart and soul in. The story of John “Golden Eagle” du Pont is a highly provocative one that deserves to be told on the big screen if only to educate those like myself who were unaware of the tragedy surrounding him. In the stifling atmosphere and mood crafted by director Bennett Miller to do so, however, I couldn’t help feel a detachment of interest. I’m looking at people and places so three dimensionally formed and yet the plot architecture housing them provides little but a paint-by-number trajectory unfolding more like a magazine article than an engrossing piece of cinematic wonder.

Miller directs the hell out of it but perhaps the dark and dour nature he’s embraced to paint it all with awesome effect overpowers the story itself. I don’t want to point a finger at screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, but if I’m to choose one aspect that fails the rest it has to be the screenplay. There’s something about how quickly the transition is made from when 1984 Olympic wrestling gold medalist and 1987 hopeful Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) needs his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) to steward him forward and when it’s du Pont’s (Steve Carell) faux sense of autonomy he craves. Even at the start we see the brothers spar aggressively until blood is drawn, but nothing more is made of the incident and they appear thick as thieves directly after.

So while moments of sibling conflict like this definitely infer upon the fragile psyche of Mark once he takes the plunge to exit his loving brother’s shadow, they simultaneously cloud the journey’s cohesiveness. From when the younger Schultz takes du Pont up on his offer to train at his Foxcatcher Farm to his first taste of cocaine, time is shown in great detail. As for the days after: not so much. Miller’s decision to give Tatum frosted tips as a sort of visual demarcation of his transformation away from an athlete dedicated to his sport and his body is brilliantly minimalistic, but I needed more in order to believe the quick 180-degree change in climate that follows du Pont’s demand for Dave’s involvement in their endeavor despite already telling Mark they didn’t need him weeks previously.

In this manner Foxcatcher is all about the characters and to that end it’s a resounding success. I’ve never seen Tatum look like a bona fide actor—so enveloped in his role that I honestly forgot the celebrity stigma usually following him around. He adopts a growl of an underbite and a wrestler’s walk with arms bent forward, sheepishly polite at all times until the fire ignited within him is extinguished in one feel swoop of betrayal by his newly anointed mentor and benefactor du Pont. As for Carell as that creepy billionaire ornithologist and philanthropist, he’s a force of quiet rage. The consummate “Momma’s Boy”, his dream to be a success in her eyes despite trying to do so within a vocation she dislikes is a fool’s errand and the last straw to breaking his morality.

To me, though, it’s Ruffalo’s depiction of Dave that outshines them with his intelligence and humanity. A family man who loves wrestling but never at the detriment of his personal life, the way he protects Mark is nothing short of unequivocal love. He’s big brother and father, as quick to give the bear hug as slap sense into a clouded mind. Always searching for a way to be truthful despite being caught inside situations making it impossible to do so, he stands up for what’s necessary for the job at hand. If that means blocking du Pont’s figurehead from doing what the man’s bruised ego believes he should, so be it. He was hired to win Olympic gold and no one can get in the way of that. Not even the boss taking credit for his work.

Each of these three men is allowed to resonate with emotional force devoid of any sweeping score manipulating our judgment of them. Scenes of dialogue—and there are many—unfold with such reverence that I don’t believe any sound but the actors’ voices can be heard. The lack of white noise was so jarring I could hear the music from the next theater clear as day through the wall. It’s an effect that forces us to linger on every word, stare into these nuanced faces full of character, and contemplate what each is thinking in the silent pauses between. The mood is expertly crafted to amp up tension until we’re unsure whether Mark will blow a gasket in rage or if du Pont will grab a high-artillery weapon and expressionlessly shoot anyone in his vicinity.

This uncertainty is delightfully uncomfortable—a character itself that overshadows the events unfolding onscreen. I became so worried from anticipating the inevitable act of violence that I found myself completely unaware of where everyone was. Were they from months tryouts? Weeks? Days? It became less about winning or losing and more about who was going to snap. It didn’t help that Carell was covered in prosthetics either (a choice I have to believe was made in hopes we didn’t see him as the funny man he is despite the odd look making him funny regardless) because it was another thing to wrestle our attention away from the story. But isn’t the point of true-life tales, to posit a why? Foxcatcher merely gives us the players—an aesthetically sound wax museum of stark truth without any energy of motion.

[1] Left to right: Steve Carell as John du Pont and Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz. Photo by Scott Garfield, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[2] Left to right: Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz and Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz. Photo by Scott Garfield, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[3] Sienna Miller as Nancy Schultz. Photo by Scott Garfield, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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