Dr. Donna Copeland’s
STEVE CARELL CHANNING TATUM MARK RUFFALO
Oscar nominated writer/director Bennett Miller’s third feature film, Foxcatcher, is similar to his first feature, Capote. It’s a slow burn of unforgettable performances, unsettling creepiness, and a depressing look at the American dream gone very wrong. There is much to absorb in this film, which includes double narratives following two lead characters as they dance or, in this case, wrestle for control. Much has been made of the facial prosthetics Steve Carell (The Way Way Back) wears for the film, and he is undeniably one of the most uncomfortable characters to watch in the past decade. The score by Rob Simonsen (Life of Pi, Moneyball) really lends to the overall mood of the film; often Miller chooses bleak silence rather than a score, which is equally as effective.
Based on the true story of the Schultz brothers Mark (Tatum) and Dave (Ruffalo), both Olympic gold-medal wrestlers, summoned to the du Pont estate called Foxcatcher. John E. du Pont (Carell), like the rest of the family, is filthy rich, flying around in helicopters, rubbing elbows with high political figures and always getting what he wants. What he wants is Mark, the younger wrestler, the one who doesn’t seem to have a path in life, to move to his estate and win the gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Mark easily gives into John, who offers him wealth, comfort and a means to his goal. “What does he get out of all this?”, Dave asks. “He gets to win,” Mark replies, not understanding John wants so much more.
The opening scene, after the beautiful title credits, shows Dave training Mark for the world title. Dave is confident, assured, and settled. His moves are almost effortless, while Mark appears overly ambitious, trying too hard to make the takedown happen, and his anger and lack of patience is quickly revealed as he bloodies his brother's nose. Scenes of Mark isolated in his crummy apartment with no friends, no hobbies and no life instantly build empathy for this dumb jock, raised by his brother. Miller is a master at character development. He takes his time, carefully selecting the right scenes to allow the audience to understand what these characters are about. Except with John, not for a second do we feel comfortable in his presence; no one does.
If Foxcatcher is nominated for best picture, and I assume it will be based on the craftsmanship, the scene that really sums up everything this film is about is a scene in a claustrophobic hotel space where Mark introduces John to Dave. The cinematography is excellent and, besides the fact, this is a prickly film that you will never want to watch again; it's topnotch in its delivery. Sure it could be edited tighter, but Miller seems to relish the way John takes these long, uncomfortable pauses and uses long takes to accentuate that. Tatum certainly does the best work of his career; he gets inside this guy’s complicated brain and you forget his mainstream antics in films like 21 Jump Street. Ruffalo is also looking at a supporting nomination for his grounded performance, but all eyes here are on Carrell and the eerie effect this performance has on the audience.
Final Thought – Carell gives one of the creepiest performances in the past decade; it’s hard to shake it off even as the credits roll.
By: Dustin Chase
Make no mistake; Foxcatcher is as much a psychological thriller based on a true story as it is a film about a wrestler who finally makes good. I found it to be very slow in the beginning, with the quiet hulk Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) being wooed by the wealthy (“ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist”) John E. du Pont (Steve Carell) to live on his estate expense free and receive a salary to boot. du Pont has visions of glory in making Mark a world champion. Mark has been in low middle-class Wisconsin being trained by his Olympic medal-winning brother David (Mark Ruffalo) (who has also won a medal), so he tries to convince David to go with him to du Pont’s Maryland estate. David has solid grounding in family obligations, so he doesn’t want to uproot his family and gives Mark his blessing to take advantage of the opportunity.
Everything is unbelievably fine at first. Mark is put up in a guesthouse, trains in a gym with other wrestlers, and indeed wins a world competition. Without his realizing it, however, du Pont begins to “incorporate” him as his “son” (for which he is always to be mindful and grateful). We’re also introduced to du Pont’s elderly mother, who has a passion for horses, but considers wrestling vulgar. We see how she shows little emotion for him, and that he grew up a rather odd and lonely child. We see the quality of their connection, with her having the upper hand and he always trying to impress and please her. And not succeeding. His character shows through when he funds a wrestling competition for senior men, and wins it.
Mark is fitting in well because he shows great respect for du Pont, but clearly, du Pont gets disappointed from time to time, and perhaps shows his identification with his mother when he experiences jealousy and competition when Mark starts developing friendships with the other wrestlers on the estate. Out of some desperation (uncalled for), after he has purposefully made a wedge between Mark and his brother Dave, he calls on David to be a part of the team. This appears as a betrayal to Mark, and he reacts like a sulky child, whereupon du Pont lets go a barrage of emasculating barbs, probably similar to what he experienced throughout his formative years. Things go from bad to worse, even though the team squeaks through with a win, but soon after, they begin to lose in competitions. Yet, David is able to keep Mark focused and du Pont mollified to some extent.
But as Mark gets more and more disenchanted, and du Pont gets more and more paranoid, you begin to think this cannot end well, and you may be right.
Bennett Miller shows in his previous work that he understands and is aware of the potency of psychological processes. Here, we have the wealthy manipulator with psychological issues pulling two naïve and relatively simple men into his web, making promises they can’t refuse. The most ironic statement in the film is “He cannot be bought.”
Steve Carell certainly delivers one of his best performances since TV’s “The Office” and the film Hope Springs. He hits the sweet spot in capturing a character who has major psychological issues but with a veneer of normalcy. Both Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo give fine dramatic performances, and it is a treat to see Vanessa Redgrave evocatively and provocatively playing Jean du Pont.
A psychological journey—if you’re up to that.
By Donna R. Copeland