Review: Foxcatcher


FOXCATCHER

When the founding fathers of America penned the Constitution, could they have had the foresight to know that the ideals they put to parchment would be manipulated by the successive generations who would inherit their infant nation? Are we any closer to arriving at “a more perfect union” than when the United States was born two centuries ago, or have we as a people been on a downhill slope from the beginning? These questions are not simple by nature, and it is possible that there are no right or wrong answers. On the surface, the strange tragedy of the Schultz brothers and John Du Pont does not appear to address these troubling inquiries. However, Bennett Miller’s depiction of the selfish twisting of one of the highest American achievements in Foxcatcher is throughly engrossing, providing a devastating image of warped patriotism.

Physically imposing and brooding, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is a remarkable human specimen. Winner of a gold medal in wrestling at the 1984 Olympics, his moment of stardom burned out pretty quickly when returning home to America. Whatever his past victories, he has inevitably lived in the shadow of his more successful older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Living by himself and giving the occasional speech to catatonically bored school children, Mark nevertheless hunts for the opportunity to compete at the upcoming World Championships and the 1988 Olympics. With Dave transitioning into coaching, Mark further sees the chance to have the spotlight to himself. It is a startling surprise when he receives a phone call from John Du Pont (Steve Carell). The Du Pont family is among the wealthiest in the nation, and John has his eyes set to coach Mark and whomever he chooses for the upcoming international competitions. He beseeches Mark to join him, arguing that the country has failed to honor him, and that he deserves to return to glory. Although Mark knows very little about Du Pont, he agrees, given the amount of resources at his disposal. What Mark begins to learn, however, is that John has almost no wrestling experience at all, let alone the knowledge for how to coach a professional team. In truth, John has his own family legacy to live up to, with his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave) looking over his shoulder from a distance. John is so intent on impressing everyone around him, speaking in empty platitudes about confidence and hope, but he only ends up looking like a buffoon. When Dave enters the picture to assist coaching Team Foxcatcher, a power struggle ensues between he and John over Mark and his training.

Bennett Miller has quietly made a name for himself over the past decade with telling compelling true life stories, and while Foxcatcher ticks that box, it is also a clear elevation in form and content. It all starts with the superb triumvirate of performances. Steve Carell provides the most noticeable transformation of the three, both in appearance and approach. With a prosthetic nose and hollowed eyes, he simply looks nothing like himself and the visage certainly lends to the uneasy nature of the character. What might have been merely creepy on the surface is where Carell suggests more in subtext, especially in scenes with Redgrave. Du Pont is under tremendous pressure internally and externally, thus his reactions to it are unnerving and even comical. He’s almost always out of his depth but never realizes it, to heartbreaking consequences. Mark Ruffalo is dependably solid as Dave, also transforming in stature and facial appearance. He does his best to console Mark in trying times, but also fails to understand that his brother secretly resents his advice. In the end, Foxcatcher is squarely centered on Mark, and frankly, Channing Tatum’s performance might be the best of the year. Ever since he broke out in comparably lighter fare, Tatum has capitalized on his affable charm to carry features. In Foxcatcher, Tatum searches inward and uncovers remarkable depth. It’s easy to display stoicism, but that’s simply the surface masking a tidal wave of conflicted emotions. Mark knows that the upcoming Olympics might be his last opportunity for greatness, but when he rejects both of his opposing mentors, where can he focus, or ultimately find solace? There’s so much going on within Mark in any given scene and Tatum’s internalized portrayal never ceases to captivate.

The previous efforts of Bennett Miller have been cinematically characterized for their removed, objective approach to the material and a similar case could be made for Foxcatcher. Greg Fraser’s photography is almost painterly in nature, with compositions as muscular as the subject in frame, but also lensed in a muted color palette. The editing of Foxcatcher also deserves mentioning on both macro and micro scales. Miller is quite patient with the storytelling, allowing for beats and scenes to play out as the film progresses at a slow burn. Many of the best scenes are lengthier, intense studies of how action dictates character and barely require dialogue. In contrast to Miller’s former approach, however, are a pair of extraordinary late scenes. In the first, Mark literally beats himself up in a hotel room over a humiliating loss, as the film doesn’t cut as the camera lunges and sways back and forth. Later, Dave pushes Mark to drop an incredible amount of weight in a tight amount of time. Relentless editing shifts in and out of Mark’s perspective as he heaves and pedals on a stationary bike, pure masculine will driving him.

Above all, it is these trite phrases of the American ideal spewed by John that have lasting impact. That which once had genuine meaning behind it is now serving the abusive ego of the witless inheritor. It is possible to make these blank declarations without meaning any harm, but when one’s own ambition is blinded in self deception, and then feels betrayed, then the ensuing tragedy is not merely local. If Dave Schutlz archetypically represents all that we aspire to be as America, and Mark is us both hardworking and decent, then John reveals what occurs when we read to much into our own ideologies, and how we become a danger to ourselves and others. Foxcatcher is an essential piece of American cinema as self dissection, a vital look at the struggle for national identity.

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~ by romancinema on November 16, 2014.

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