Foxcatcher

 

Cast: Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller

Director: Bennett Miller

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Bennet Miller's unbearably bleak third feature Foxcatcher reveals what happens when rich men with mommy issues and stunted growth indulge in their most nefarious impulses. It's also a film about the way capitalism formulates a model for these sad, delusional, and terrifying monsters; in this case, Jon E. du Pont, a would-be wrestling coach living on a billion-dollar estate played by Steve Carrell. How former Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) becomes ensnared inside du Pont's psychologically twisted web is only partially the main driving force behind Miller's erie drama, since there's also a third member of what turns out to be a bizarre triangle of damaged maleness in the form of Mark's older brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). Mark and Dave's complicated brotherly bond; which involves competitive jostling as well as a deep-seated respect for one another, is really the heart of the film, and both Tatum and Ruffalo are exceptional at locating the lumbering physicality as well the inner insecurities of their characters. In Mark's case, there's a definite a sense of shame from ostensibly living in his older brother's shadow.

As a dissection of masculinity, greed, and lopsided American values, Foxcatcher is a probing character study. As a ripped from the headlines "true story", however, the film is boldly un-melodramatic, wisely avoiding the kind of tabloid kitsch that was surely a temptation for Miller. Instead, there's a stark naturalism and a mood of impending dread here that makes even the most lurid and heightened aspects of the story feel muted. From the first frames, where we see Mark hiding out in his car scarfing down a cheeseburger or eating Chinese food alone in his sterile apartment, Miller has effortlessly established a world of isolated men cut off from social interaction. This is three years after winning the 1984 Olympic gold medal, and the fact that Mark's success as all but been forgotten while his charismatic brother Dave flourishes as a coach and family man, sets in motion a series of events that leads to a mysterious phone call from du Pont beckoning Mark via helicopter for a face-to-face conversation.

This conversation, which is played with shy awkwardness by Tatum and a creepy sense of entrepreneurial stateliness by Carrell, is meant to introduce us to a possible mentor/father figure for the aimless Mark. Of course, du Pont's decision to sponsor an Olympic hopeful wrestling team and train them inside an immaculately constructed facility on his lavish property is warped and self-serving, seemingly having more to do with his strained relationship with his smothering mother (Vanessa Redgrave) than anything else. Wearing a prosthetic nose, fake teeth, swabs of makeup, and letting his grey hair show, Carrell is nearly unrecognizable as the eccentric man-child, and though he's aping the real-life du Pont (who was himself an exaggerated caricature of a human being), there's something initially mannered and distracting about the portrayal. However, over the course of the film, Carrell's performance takes on a menacing, off-kilter quality that matches Miller's handling of the contemplative, downbeat tone. By the end, it's a convincingly unnerving piece of work; deftly balancing moments of surreal comedy with darker, more disturbing touches.

Once du Pont manages to wrangle Dave into joining his brother on his estate, Foxcatcher takes on the the feeling of a fucked-up love triangle. There's everything from jealousy, competition, eroticism, and pent-up rage at play here, and Miller smartly stays out of the way stylistically in order to allow his actors the freedom to rip into their portrayals. Additionally, the screenplay, by Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye, gives us the skeletal outline of the headline-grabbing story and then withholds many of the details. For instance, Mark's downward spiral into drug abuse and yellow hair dye is largely kept offscreen, as is exactly what's going on between him and du Pont. While this ambiguity may frustrate some hoping for more clarity, it actually creates a searing atmosphere of tension in nearly every scene. The script is also smart about the way it uses the typical tropes of the sports movie only to subvert expectations. Though there are countless sequences of sweaty, muscle-bound men rolling around on mats and even a race the clock third act development where Mark must shed weight in order to qualify for a major tournament, Foxcatcher isn't really interested in the sport of wrestling. In fact, Miller is clearly drawn to isolated men on the fringes (Capote and Moneyball both featured obsessive, lonely male characters), and wrestling is only a mechanism in order to spin this particular tale of the dark underbelly of the American Dream.

In it's understated manner of detailing a tragic real-life story, Foxcatcher succeeds at peeling back the inner psychology of it's characters in a way that's both revealing and troubling. By keeping the hysterics under the surface and placing his focus on damaged masculinity and the paranoid black heart of America, Miller has given us the perfect encapsulation of capitalism and patriotism gone awry.