Sunday, November 16, 2014

Review: Foxcatcher

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
On the surface, Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" is a riveting - if chilly - true crime thriller with some performances unlike any other previously seen by its cast. But the picture is obviously much more, using the story of the peculiar friendship between millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) and Olympic wrestling brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) that led to murder as a microcosm for the death of the American dream and the dangers of American exceptionalism.

For those unaware of this strange story, both Schultz brothers were Olympic gold medalists during the 1980s, although Mark - at least according to this movie - lived under his older brother's shadow. When Mark receives a call from du Pont, the obvious black sheep in his Pennsylvania family dynasty, he is curious enough to meet with the man, who immediately proclaims his love of birds and his conception of being a "patriot" with aims to restore the United States' former glory.

In a relationship bordering on homoerotic, Schultz moves in to a small home on du Pont's property - but first, in one of the film's rarely humorous scenes, must watch a dry video tape on the du Pont dynasty - and begins training in the gym constructed by the millionaire as a spot for U.S. wrestlers to prepare for the Olympics. At du Pont's request, Mark attempts to draw his brother to the Foxcatcher estate, but to no avail.

One of the film's most interesting threads is how it juxtaposes du Pont - a seemingly aimless silver spoon-type whose attempts to fund a wrestling training site appears to be merely an attempt to impress his aging mother (Vanessa Redgrave) - with David Schultz. Du Pont inflates his own sense of importance to great magnitude, constantly lecturing Mark on the importance of American glory and - with no hint of irony - insisting that his friends refer to him as "Eagle... or The Golden Eagle." David Schultz, meanwhile, is a humble man who has worked hard to become one of the best at his sport and prefers to stay home with his family, rather than galavant around upper crust circles with du Pont as his younger brother does.

But eventually, du Pont convinces David to move his family to the Foxcatcher estate, where he will act as head trainer for the U.S. wrestling team. As David's star rises in du Pont's eyes, Mark's goes on the decline, pushing him into overeating, fits of rage and drug abuse.

Carell is impressive as he disappears - including physically as his character comes equipped with a fake nose - into the role of the frosty du Pont, but it is Tatum who is onscreen for most of the film's running time and he shows new depths as an actor. Gone is the friendly swagger of his Magic Mike as he painfully brings to life Mark's troubled soul. And Ruffalo, providing the most sympathetic portrayal in the picture, holds the whole thing together as David in an understated performance that should not get lost amid the award season hoopla.

At its heart, "Foxcatcher" explores the dangerous naivete of American exceptionalism, especially the type that brings together folks who have never known how to lose with those who must struggle to win. Tatum's belief in du Pont's absurd vision of success is tragic, while du Pont's own belief in it is outright disturbing. And a scene late in the film when du Pont himself takes part in a wrestling match clearly outlines which character has the most at risk.

I won't give away the end for those who are unfamiliar with the case - but, suffice it to say, it doesn't end well for all those involved. And Miller, whose previous films include "Capote" and "Moneyball," culminates the picture with a cynical - but deservedly so - take on what happens when you have to reconcile the American Dream with just getting by. The finale is complete with a chant equally as unsettling as the chest pounding and whooping rallying cry of last year's "The Wolf of Wall Street." This is a stark, powerful movie that ranks among the year's best.

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