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Entries in Foxcatcher [2014] (1)

Friday
Nov282014

Foxcatcher (2014)

The Fortune Awakens

Due to illness, this review is officially a week late--and that's a good thing. After several days of fever dreams and frustration at not being with it enough to string four coherent words together, I revisited the Foxcatcher write-up I'd begun and found it to be garbage; the kind of awards-season prose you can find on at least half of the Internet's billion-plus Websites. Despondent, I wondered if I had any business talking about movies in this digital cacophany of New Millennium opinion.*

This morning, the new Star Wars trailer hit, and reminded me of a thought I had towards the end of Bennett Miller's black-hearted wrestling dramedy: in an odd way, Foxcatcher is the "Fall of Anakin Skywalker Story" that fans of George Lucas's original trilogy waited nearly three decades for--and never got.

Hear me out.

Set in the late 80s, Foxcatcher centers on Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), whose career stalled after he and his brother, David (Mark Ruffalo), took home gold medals for wrestling in the 1984 Olympics. For Mark, sharing wrestling coach duties with his older brother at the University of Oklahoma isn't enough: he covets David's charisma, his beautiful wife, Nancy (Sienna Miller), and their kids--mostly, he's jealous of David's apparent contentment. Mark lacks imagination and the capacity to dream beyond his body, which he spends every waking moment crafting into something that millions of adoring fans might one day cheer for again.

Enter John du Pont (Steve Carell), the impossibly wealthy heir to the DuPont chemical empire. He's a wrestling fanatic whose elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave) neither understands nor approves of his passion (she values only her prize-winning horses, bred and trained at Foxcatcher Farm, the family's luxurious Pennsylvania estate). Du Pont seizes on Mark's drive, patriotism, and lack of self-worth, and offers him the world in exchange for prepping a team for the '88 Olympic trials. Mark agrees, and du Pont stokes the flames of fear and anger with drugs and promises of power and respect.

The demons of insecurity within Mark and du Pont fall in love with each other, even though both men's natural capacity for romantic lust were extinguished long ago (if, in fact, they ever existed). Foxcatcher Farm becomes a rural Death Star, a cold and isolated planet on which a titan and his wormy, misguided apprentice rule absolutely. Du Pont can and does buy everything--from the affection of his team to the complicity of his security staff, who think nothing of his walking into a training session with a loaded handgun. Mark's only chance at redemption is David, who is encouraged to visit at du Pont's behest, and for the most insidious of reasons.

In true Jedi fashion, David does his best to extricate Mark from his master's clutches. Unfortunately, this involves signing on with du Pont and moving his family onto the estate. By this point, you see, du Pont has realized that one Schultz brother is not enough. He has the brawn in his stable, but needs the brains and the heart in order to A) rally his team and B) sell Team Foxcatcher as a legitimate athletic brand to the public. Brotherly love comes to a boiling head with unchecked greed in a terrific scene where a DuPont lackey coerces David into filming a promo video. It's a turning point for all the relationships in the film, as well as the moment when an oddly funny movie about dangerous idiots becomes a tragic riff on the scorpion and the frog parable.

Some complain that Foxcatcher is slow. I get that, but I don't accept it. One of the story's themes is boredom, and the degree to which some people will try to fool themselves and others into escaping their own deficit of mental resources. Miller and writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman make the most out of what could have been a cookie-cutter "Based on a True Story" story by chucking convention in favor of contemplation.

The actors breathe in these characters who, in the presence of too much "business" would have seemed patently ridiculous in the first five minutes. Instead, we're given space to appreciate not only the performers' delivery but also their astute physicality: Carell is all hunched, cared-for sniveling creep wrapped in an air of fine breeding, while Tatum and Ruffalo carry their bodies as warriors--their hands in a perpetually wrung state, as if grappling is a more natural instinct than a handshake.

Because Carell, Tatum, and Ruffalo have the flexibility to wow us with weirdness, jaw-dropping stupidity, and hard-fought tenderness, respectively, Foxcatcher becomes a film populated by rich but very, very sad people. My Star Wars analogy breaks apart later in the climax, as we don't get a dramatic, lava-surfing confrontation between brothers. Instead, Mark, the Anakin figure, is sidelined in the ultimate fight between love and hatred--as personified by David Schultz and John du Pont. It's a beautifully staged, absolutely heartbreaking stand-off that both underscores and undoes the sweat put in by both sides during this epic struggle for one sap's sole.

I could have done with a more clear-cut ending. We get the obligatory "Where Are They Now" title cards, but the imagery that closes out the drama references an obscure moment earlier in the picture, which is a bit too far a reach for those of us still reeling from that doozy of a climax. Minor gripe aside, Foxcatcher is packed with moments beautiful, creepy, funny, and touching. Miller, his cast, and his crew, have made a movie based on real life that feels at once plausible and so weird that it might as well have taken place in another galaxy.

*This existential crisis manifests about twice a month, but gets positively grim when sickness strikes.