Foxcatcher (2014)

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 “What’s he get out of all this?”

In its opening shot, Foxcatcher director Bennett Miller ingeniously sets up, and almost tells, the entire grief-ridden story in one brief set of frames. Hulking Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is alone in the brick walled room, every square inch covered by freshly mopped mats. The wrestling area is both Mark’s prison yard and his cell, allowing him brief respite all while totally confining the rest of his life. He shoots at the legs of the dummy, suplexes the body bag, spars with the faceless foe. The title, taken from the late William du Pont Jr.’s noted racing stable, which went on to become the name of America’s national wrestling team through the 80’s and 90’s, couldn’t be more appropriate. Foxcatcher is a King Learian take on patriotism, wealth, and greatness. There are people who have to chase the fox (those three ideologies) and others who don’t. Some are salmon swimming upstream; others are bears waiting for the prize to jump right into their lazy, lonely, privileged arms.

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As a note, this is a fictitious recounting of a real story. There are some really important differences between the two accounts if you look them up, but cinematically, every creative choice makes sense, everything gives detail and adds richness to the lives that we encounter. Foxcatcher is grueling, purposefully slowly paced, and emotionally distant. We end up feeling exactly like the characters in the film do, which is despondent. Every ounce of fat on this movie gives flavor and depth. There are no trimmings, no sides, just the main dish. And boy is it a deliciously disturbing treat.

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Mark Schultz, with his Olympic Gold medal and prestigious honors, exists as a shadow. He practices and retreats back to his dingy apartment where he scarfs down ramen noodles and plays a Gameboy for entertainment. It’s like watching Tom Hanks in the classic Biga child lives in the body of a man. Mark’s older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) raised him. Dave’s outgoing, polite, has a wife and kids. He’s comfortable as a parent and adult in the real world because it’s the same role he’s played since his youth. You’d think the two were strangers but they come together through wrestling, and it’s clear early on that Dave is the better of the two. Mark is muscular and bigger, but his unharnessed rage often gets the best of him. He’s a loose cannon and Dave is a methodically precise master of technique. I have no idea if that’s how each man respectively approached the sport, but it sure sets up a powerful sibling dynamic. Mark lives in Dave’s shadow.

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As Mark becomes more alone, he also becomes more vulnerable. One night the phone rings; it’s a man calling on behalf of John du Pont (Mark’s unaware of the wealthy family). He flies out, meets John, is escorted around the estate. It’s all overwhelmingly welcoming to Mark. And for the audience it is unnerving. As John, Steve Carell doesn’t just give hands down the best performance of his career, he disappears into it. John lists his eclectic resume countless times. He’s a philanthropist, philatelist (study of stamps), phonologist (study of sounds), ornithologist (study of birds), conchologist (study of mollusc shells). All things that would appeal to an eccentric young man growing up alone in the vast, empty living quarters. John makes videos about the family dynasty and the greatness they’ve achieved, and they’re as concerned about displaying ultimate power as Leni Reifenstahl’s infamous Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. He’s clearly a traumatized and troubled man, seeking approval but never getting it, especially not from his disapproving and unsympathetic mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave).

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We’re taken on a strange, oftentimes subtly homoerotic odyssey by director Bennett Miller. John wants to be one of the guys. He introduces Mark to his “party” lifestyle, which is more sitting alone and numbing the pain with a drink or cocaine. Mark gives his benefactor lessons even though he’s obviously unathletic, because John wants to fit in. John is upper class, and as his mother reminds him, wrestling is for the lowly. He’s been alone his whole life, so maybe stooping to the level of the crouched and cauliflower eared wrestlers will bring him new life. Carell plays the madman with apathy but never subdues the insanity and increased paranoia growing inside him. In the film’s most divulging scene, John sits in a rocking chair while Mark is perched cross-legged in front of him. He says that he used to have a friend, just one, and that he was the son of a family driver. That was until he discovered his mother paid the young boy for his friendship services. He smiles at Mark, looks up, and withdraws back into his dysfunctional memory.

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It goes without saying that Miller does some Oscar worthy craftsmanship, but I can’t help but think the movie is too somber with this years excellent slate of films. The acting is second to none. Mark Ruffalo has had a phenomenal year and continues his winning streak with his paternal, protective, and comforting portrayal of Dave. He’ll likely get Best Supporting Actor nominations. And Carell is just out of this world. Honestly, it’s hard to comprehend you’re watching the same guy whose fame started with getting his chest hair waxed and yelling expletives. It’s a leap forward for the phenomenal talent. But I don’t understand why Tatum is being snubbed. He is the film’s leading actor, not Carell, who is surprisingly up in most lead categories. Tatum is the star, and while Carell is the most transfixing as John, Tatum plays Mark with patience and density. Mark is the heart of the movie, and Tatum gives the most physical and emotional performance of the three. It’s a dynamic trio.

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Foxcatcher’s most impressive feat is that we know how the story ends. John murders Dave, Mark goes back into the shadows, and just as abruptly as the film cuts away, the story is over. In this world, Dave is the lone, steady voice of reason. John’s the exploiter and Mark is his toy. It’s a perfectly balanced look into the various echelons of economic and social rankings in America. By the time the film ends, we see how each man decays, and how like the poster, John du Pont forcibly cuts his blemished legacy into the family empire. How he adds murderer to his expansive resume. Foxcatcher is a tempered, bone-chilling exploration of an unsettling true story of loss, family, and the price we pay for affection.

“I want to see this country soar again.”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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