Sunday, November 16, 2014

New movie review: Foxcatcher

Channing Tatum and Steve Carell are men standing in the shadows in Foxcatcher.

Among the hardest things any of us will ever accomplish is to step out of the shadows. We all start in the shadows, be they cast by our families, our histories, or our heroes, yet there is an innate human need to run to the light. Most of us cannot help but desire to eclipse the darkness and bask in the warming glow of the fire, but the closer we get to the source, the bigger the shadows become. The only way to succeed is to step back and create our own light.

Bennett Miller’s strange and stirring new true-crime drama Foxcatcher is about two men who go to great lengths to escape the shadows and be their own light, but in so doing, they succeed only in spreading darkness. Based on the story of millionaire heir John du Pont and the Olympic wrestler brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, Foxcatcher is a master class in using atmosphere to achieve powerful storytelling ends.

Set mostly in Pennsylvania over the course of about a decade, the sun never seems to shine on Foxcatcher Farm, the extravagant estate owned by the du Pont family. An icy chill hangs over the grounds. It is a world frozen in time, a place where money and power trump all, appearances are everything, and might makes right. Onto this tundra walks Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz. A stranger in a strange land, he has only one person on whom to rely – John du Pont – which is precisely the trap that was set.

The basic facts of the real story are adhered to rigorously. As a result, if you are aware of the history, you will know what is coming. If not, you are in for a series of disturbing surprises. However, by hewing so closely to the true-life material, Miller provides a platform for the kind of deep character study rarely attempted in thrillers. The elements are of melodrama, yet the effect is anything but.

In his first three films – Capote, Moneyball, and now Foxcatcher – Miller has displayed a knack for taking events from America’s recent past and turning them into fodder for exploring the motivations of great men doing morally ambiguous work. He is not so much interested in what happened as why it happened and the decaying culture that allows such things to occur.

John du Pont has turned the outmoded fortress of Foxcatcher Farm into a private fantasy land, where with his infinite wealth, he can craft the narrative that suits him best. He wants to be respected, admired, and loved, not for his family’s name or money but for his own accomplishments. The irony is that in his quest, he wears the name as a shield and wields his checkbook as a sword. Nothing can penetrate his delusions.

The du Pont family wealth comes from weaponry and chemicals. It is tied up in the U.S. national defense and the idea of American exceptionalism. Standing on this platform, John du Pont takes it upon himself to lead the U.S. to Olympic wrestling glory – never mind that Mark and Dave Schultz each won gold medals long before they even knew the du Pont name. His plan is to found a team, fund a training center, and take credit for the glory of leading America to the gold.

When first we meet Mark Schultz, he is delivering a motivational speech to a crowd of disinterested and confused elementary school children. Then, we learn it was supposed to be his older brother, Dave Schultz, giving the speech. Though both won gold medals at the 1984 games, it is clear from the outset that teacher, family man, and all-around good guy Dave Schultz is the admired one. Mark Schultz is the little brother, the afterthought, and the perfect pawn.

Mark Schultz is invited to be the cornerstone of Team Foxcatcher, and though he invites his reluctant brother along, part of him is flattered and excited by the idea of striking out on his own. It seems no one has ever trusted him with this kind of responsibility before, and he is determined to do what he must to succeed on his own terms.

Much of the first two-thirds of the film is a stunning, elaborate, and eerie pas de deux between Steve Carell, as John du Pont, and Channing Tatum, as Mark Schultz. Both actors tear down our preconceived notions of them as performers and inhabit these roles with the kind of abandon most audiences could never have imagined.

Carell, who has gone dramatic as sad-sacks and misanthropes before, sheds any lingering remnants of his nice-guy persona and portrays John du Pont as a mad, manipulative monster whose own need to project a heroic image outweighs the needs of anyone in his orbit. Much will be written about the makeup Carell wears, but the performance is more than a prosthetic nose and capped teeth. He is the physical embodiment of a man who walks with the confidence money buys but with the insecurity inadequacy breeds. Inside, he is twisted, isolated, and corrupted by power. He is a madman.

In contrast, Tatum is given less to do but nails every small detail and explosive outburst of the role. He is not quite a simpleton, but he is a hulking man-child who has been beaten down on the wrestling mat and in life. He is all-too eager for somebody to show confidence in him but too blind to see his brother has been in his corner – literally and figuratively – all along. Tatum has few memorable lines but speaks volumes with his massive frame, hunching his shoulders, crossing his arms, and sliding his feet to convey the full measure of the man he is.

Mark Schultz does not need a father figure, but John du Pont is determined to be one, even if he has to put the words in his would-be protégé’s mouth. He exerts his dominance so early and so often that the younger man has no choice but to bend to his will. John du Pont can only escape his shadows by casting a shadow, and so the conflict begins.

Caught in the middle is the older brother Dave Schultz, played with understated insistence by the always reliable Mark Ruffalo. He is a man torn among loyalties to his brother, to his country, and to his wife and children. Dave Schultz is a benevolent, centering presence who wants to do right by all of his obligations but is engulfed by the darkness around him. For him, there is no good move because when you are on a pedestal, stepping in any direction means falling to the earth below.

Foxcatcher is bathed in darkness and shadows. It takes as its subjects a nefarious man and a blind boy who struggle to escape the pits in which they find themselves. But, its final and most haunting assertion is its message about people like Dave Schultz. Sometimes the hardest place to stand is in the light.

See it? Yes.

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