Film Review: Foxcatcher (2014)

Foxcatcher, the new film by director Bennett Miller, is defined by two attributes. It is a testament to the power of intuitive casting, and perhaps the year’s greatest exploration of the promise of America.

Recounting the bizarre relationship between Olympic wrestling brothers Dave and Mark Schultz, and millionaire John du Pont, Foxcatcher is a restrained yet ultimately enriching portrait of money, power and self-delusion. Led by a trio of powerful performances from leads Carell, Tatum, and Ruffalo, Foxcatcher is not only intelligent but emotionally affecting. It’s one of the best movies put out by the Hollywood machine this year.

In his second true crime film, director Miller moves away from the relatively small-scale proceedings of films like Capote and Moneyball. Beginning with archival footage of the du Pont dynasty, the director slowly establishes that his film’s primary focus is an idea, the idea of America. While the film’s marketing would lead one to believe that Steve Carell (who plays du Pont) is the most critical character of the film, in actuality it is Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz, an accomplished wrestler who feels overshadowed by his older brother Dave.

Schultz’s wrestling is utilized by Bennett Miller as a construct, harnessed to show the complexity of the American Dream. Despite his Olympic-level success, Schultz is a lost soul, adrift in a post-competition malaise, and barely able to scratch out a modest livelihood. Tatum, who has always been more than your run-of-the-mill hunk, is remarkable in the film. He masters the physicality of the role easily, being particularly convincing in the wrestling scenes. However, the way he meshes the physical with his character’s emotional life is even more notable. He is able to suggest through hesitant, utilitarian movements and a soft-spoken demeanor the inner-life of a man who has yet to find validation.

Experiencing similar existential despair, yet inhabiting a completely different milieu, is Carell’s John du Pont. These two men initially meet when du Pont invites Schultz out to his Foxcatcher ranch, where he then offers him financial backing as he trains for the 1988 Olympics. What initially looks like pure altruism from a quirky philanthropist becomes progressively darker. The film positions the millionaire as an opportunist looking to expand his reputation on the backs of others.

Many will look upon Steve Carell’s appearance in the film as a departure for the actor, who is obviously best known for his comedic work. However, there is a synergy to be found between this performance and his other roles. The specter of Michael Scott is felt strongly throughout Foxcatcher, particularly in scenes where du Pont is seeking the affirmation of his elitist mother, played by the steely Vanessa Redgrave.

Amazingly, these scenes nearly allow one to feel sympathy for the man, a feeling that is enhanced by Rob Simonsen’s sensitive and sparse score. Yet, in the end Carell’s performance is so freakishly weird that du Pont can be seen for what he almost certainly was: an ill, lonely and ultimately pathetic man. Any real poignancy that the character possesses is slowly eroded by the way he capitalizes on Tatum’s Mark, using his association with the hearty Olympian to somehow augment his own virility and patriotism.

With his mug buried underneath “old dude” makeup, and an extension for his already considerable schnoz, Carell’s supremely accomplished work in Foxcatcher flirts dangerously with “Johnny Depp syndrome,” where the acting is trumped by superficial gimmicks. Thankfully, he is able to transcend this dangerous potential. The actor turns in a performance that is eerily calm and otherworldly. Its impact is muted however by the film’s script, which is overly reliant on using Redgrave’s character to explain du Pont’s general neurosis.

Rounding out the trio is Mark Ruffalo’s Dave Schultz, the most grounded and affable of the three main characters. Dave was eventually persuaded to join his brother at Foxcatcher farms to help train the 1988 Olympic team, where he would later be murdered by du Pont in 1996. Although saddled with a part that is the least showy of the three, Ruffalo’s work in Foxcatcher is absolutely critical to the story’s thematic framework. Bennett Miller is able to suggest in just a few scenes the monumental differences in the worldviews and maturity levels of the two Schultz brothers. Possessing a wife and two small children, Ruffalo’s Dave is committed to his responsibilities, preoccupied by more modest dreams than those of du Pont and his younger brother, yet also exponentially more happy.

Ruffalo’s performance provides the film with its heart, and when the murder scene inevitably comes you feel its impact. E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script asserts that Dave Schwartz is the character in Foxcatcher who knows himself. This is the quality that allows him to swallow minor debasements, such as when he is asked to say on film that du Pont is his mentor (when du Pont begins filming a delusional documentary about himself). Additionally, it allows him to continue rising to the challenge of looking after his younger brother. One of the film’s most touching scenes involves him intervening after Mark’s relationship with du Pont sours.

While affecting, these moments of brotherly love do not sentimentalize what is a marvelously grim and understated piece of cinema. As opposed to Interstellar (also released this month), which was a film whose behemoth premise belied rather modest themes, Foxcatcher harnesses its small group of characters to offer a expansive deconstruction of the American Dream. It largely succeeds with this goal, positing that the dream is found if one knows who they are, but can also be destroyed by those who don’t.

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