' ' Cinema Romantico: Foxcatcher

Wednesday, December 03, 2014


Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) may be an Olympic wrestler, Gold Medalist in 1984 at Los Angeles, but he is also crippingly anti-social and an amateur athlete (read: poor). So after practice one day he returns to his sludgy apartment and chows down on Ramen Noodles at his shabby dining room table while looking at his wall, adorned, so to speak, with a framed dime-store re-creation of Leutze's immortal "Washington Crossing the Delaware", a staring contest between a detatched athlete and the grand myth of the country he supposedly represents. It is an exquisite micrososm of "Foxcatcher", the fact-based story of an eccentric billionaire, John du Pont, and his strange, strained relationship with two wrestlers over a decade. It works best as an unsettling look into the male psyche, but director Bennett Miller also tries to turn it into an overarching commentary on America.

Ostensibly "Foxcatcher" is a sports movie but all the rah-rah, sis-boom-bah typically associated with the genre has been noticeably siphoned out. Instead its tone and atmosphere feels like that room in your parents' house with the really expensive furniture and fireplace that was off limits for you and your rowdy friends, and even if you don't know the extensive details of the true-life tale, it is easy to detect that tragedy awaits rather than triumph. The wrestling, in fact, could have been anything, and the film slyly suggests that it was, seeing as how du Pont spends as much money on army tanks as he does on singlets. It's an ancient idea but a no less true one - that is, a millionaire x infinity filling the colossal void of his otherwise privileged existence with all the money that privilege can buy. He has no friends so he simply enlists some in the form of elite athletes, luring Mark to his sprawling Pennsylvania estate called Foxcatcher Farms where he has erected a regal wrestling facility from his holy shit! fortune of gunpowder and chemicals. There Mark can train in style, and du Pont can glom onto his "tutor".

Steve Carrell assumes the part of du Pont by fashioning his hook with archetypal Academy bait in the form of a significant nose job, a hunched back, schluffy gait and a creepy accent suggesting a man who spends most of his time cooped up inside his own head. It is, by all accounts, a fine embodiment of du Pont, yet it can't help but evoke perhaps Carrell's most infamous creation - office manager Michael Scott. This isn't to say that bits of Carrell's Michael Scott repertoire seep into the performance, not at all, but that his presence in each role allows their similarities to stand out. Both men are oblivious egotists, frightened of women, friendless, seemingly beholden to a severe case of Oedipus Complex. A sequence in which du Pont pathetically poses as a legit wrestling coach in front of his unimpressed, wheelchair bound mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is no more squeamish than Michael Scott trying to break dance on a booze cruise to display "leadership".

Tatum equals Carrell's turn with a just-as-intense performance, though less dependent on physical forgery. He convincingly cultivates an ultra-muscled gait and authenticates an inward drive, the perfect pent-up hull to which an affluent barnacle like du Pont can attach himself. Off the mat he is marooned by isolation, succintly summarized in a quick sequence where he sits by himself in his car, shoveling fast food into his mouth. The Loneliness of the Olympic Wrestler. It's a second-and-a-half that will break your heart. And these issues are only compounded around his brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), a fellow '84 Gold Medalist.

Dave, in fact, emerges as "Foxcatcher's" most critical and compelling character, undergoing the most significant change despite being more rock solid in who he is than the static principal duo. He is a devout competitor but also a genial family man with two kids and a loving wife (Sienna Miller, the most beautiful woman in the world vanishing into a Dollar Store wardrobe). He refuses overtures to re-locate to Foxcatcher Farms at his brother's behest because he refuses to uproot his family. Until, of course, the price that du Pont pitches is right because even good samaritans need to buy groceries. The scenes in which Dave is made to bow to du Pont despite du Pont's glaring vainglory and wealth-protected ignorance are nauseating, and Ruffalo plays this reluctance for all its worth.

To be certain, what we are shown is not the whole story. Psychiatric issues and more led to du Pont's downfall, topics the film does not really broach, and his relationship to Dave must have amounted to more because otherwise why would he stay? Even money isn't enough to keep a well-reasoned man around a gun-toting loony tune. Miller is not fudging the facts, however, he's merely leaving out pertinent information to sculpt his story the way he wants, painting a morality play with Foxcatcher Farms as the mammoth canvas. Dave stands in for Apple Pie & Chevy Truck America while du Point represents Wine Cellar and Goldman Sachs America, and Mark is the America that got lost off track somewhere in the middle.

That allegory gets pushed too hard, but that doesn't mean "Foxcatcher" fails to work. As an intimate, immediate, intense, and ultimately ill-fated tale of the three men, it is occasionally extraordinary. And when du Pont earnestly tells Mark that his friends call him "Eagle - or Golden Eagle", everything we need to know about America ceding its land of liberty to filthy rich imbeciles is on the screen.


Alex Withrow said...

Love this review. And I dig that our reviews actually have a lot in common, in terms of what we discussed. But man, this right here sums it all up beautifully: "Sienna Miller, the most beautiful woman in the world vanishing into a Dollar Store wardrobe." Yes, exactly.

Anonymous said...

Nice review Nick. Though it's cold, dark and as chilly as the winter air, the performances are so fantastic that it's nearly impossible to look away from the screen. Even if it is incredibly unsettling.