Mark Reviews Movies

Foxcatcher

FOXCATCHER

3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Bennett Miller

Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice

MPAA Rating: R (for some drug use and a scene of violence)

Running Time: 2:14

Release Date: 11/14/14 (limited); 11/21/14 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 20, 2014

Foxcatcher is the story of a man who wants to impress his mother and another man who wants to escape the shadow of his older brother. That's a gross simplification, of course, but those desires are the foundation of the film's nuanced, chilling examination of two wounded people who believe others are to blame for their suffering. They are also equally convinced that someone owes them something for that pain.

They don't want the world. One man pretty much has it. He comes from, as a video that apparently every guest to his massive estate is shown, "the wealthiest family in the world."

The other could never dream of such material riches. He lives off the paltry checks from thankless jobs, like a speech he gives to a group of students at an elementary school for $20 (a speech, by the way, that his brother was supposed to give), and lives on a diet of cheap, frozen noodles. He stares at a bowl of the watery chow while sitting at the kitchen table of his sparse apartment, where shelves hold an assortment of trophies that are likely the most expensive and—for all they've gotten him—most worthless items in his home.

The rich man didn't have to work a day in his life for the seemingly limitless money at his disposal. The poor man has been working for decades at and won a gold medal at the Olympics in 1984 (with his brother) for the sport of wrestling, and look where he is.

Splurging for Mark Shultz (Channing Tatum), the man who's just barely scraping by, is going to a fast-food joint and buying a burger, which he devours in just a few, greedy, and overly appreciative bites before even leaving the parking lot. Splurging for John du Pont (Steve Carell), the wealthy man, is building a gym on the grounds of his vast estate in order to start a wrestling team, which he hopes he'll be able to coach to glory at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.

There is no rational reason that the lives of these men should collide, just as there's no rational reason that a man with everything would act in the way of a desperate man who has nothing or that a man who has achieved everything he could in his career would have nothing. Through the sharp examination of these two men in E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's screenplay, director Bennett Miller exposes a much deeper problem.

The film isn't so much a critique of the American Dream as it is a bleak, mournful observation of how irrational and warped it can become. That the story, based on actual events, ends in tragedy is an inevitability, not only because of the twisted psychology of one of the central players but also because of a system that allows that character's mind to thrive unchecked.

The two men do come together, though, when John decides to start a wrestling team called Team Foxcatcher, which is named after the horse stable at his family estate. It's an act of rebellion for the man, whose mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) sees wrestling as a "base" sport, unlike the grace and stature of riding horses, but he frames it as a patriotic act to undermine the Soviet Union. John is fairly worthless as a coach, giving basic tips and generic words of support.

Whether or not he is aware of that fact is irrelevant. He writes glowing speeches about himself for others to read. Later, he hires a film crew to hype his role on the team. He breaks off a practice and stages the team members in such a way that his mother can watch him "coach." Everyone knows what he's doing and is uncomfortable about it, but no one dares to speak a word. He sponsors a wrestling competition and, to no one's surprise, wins it. There's a scene where he "wrestles" Mark, and Miller stages it in such a way that it appears as a sinister violation instead of simply a humiliating experience. This is a man building his own legend in an attempt to supplant his family's history, and he does so on the backs of others.

Mark is a means to that end for John, and the millionaire's offer to lead the team is an opportunity that's too perfect for Mark to decline. Mark gets to name his salary (which is ridiculously low under the circumstances), pick a team, and stay at a guest house on the estate.

John really has his eye on Mark's brother David (Mark Ruffalo), who coaches wrestling at a college and has no interest in breaking his contractual obligations. When Mark finally convinces David to visit the Foxcatcher facilities, John looks at the elder brother in the way a starving person would eye a scrap of food.

Much could be said of the makeup Carell wears for the role, which gives him a distinctive, curved nose and a waxy face. It's slightly distracting, but it is only so for a few moments. Most of his performance depends on his eyes, which are dead and black orbs that zero in with unnatural focus on whatever or whoever they crave, and his speech pattern, which sounds like a timid child who's trying to figure out how language works. There is something practiced about this man's manner. Carell's work is a performance of a man performing. This is an individual who knows how a human being should behave but who can't quite match the expectation.

Also great here is Tatum, whose Mark is, like John, something of a hollow shell where a personality should be. Whatever is there has been molded by disillusionment and sibling jealousy, making him an ideal candidate for further shaping by John. As the promise of seeing his aspirations fulfilled turns to reinforcement of his previously held insecurities, Mark begins to decline into laziness and self-destruction. As the supportive David, Ruffalo plays a man who seems to come the closest to protesting John's domineering ways, but his sympathetic personality and sense of duty allow him to only take it so far.

Foxcatcher is a bleak, uncompromising film about pain and madness, with the whims of a madman serving as a model for the corruptive influence of money and power. Here, the pursuit of the American Dream is not a friendly competition or a fair fight. It's a blood sport.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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