PLOT: Based on a true story, FOXCATCHER examines the strange relationship between wealthy DuPont scion John Du Pont and Olympic gold medalists Mark and Dave Schultz, whom Du Pont agreed to fund and house as they trained for the 1996 summer Olympics.
REVIEW: Some movies make their mark with atmosphere. It can count for a lot if done right, and director Bennett Miller creates an atmosphere of such ominous dread in FOXCATCHER that it had me on the edge of my seat the entire time, making a mockery of most thrillers or horror movies that attempt to do the same. It's an atmosphere of unease and grief, of paranoia and obsession. And as glum as that sounds, the movie also has a strong current of electricity that runs through it; it's never a slog or depressing. Yes, it's sad, but I personally left the film feeling fairly invigorated by it. That's a testament to great filmmaking, which can transform even the darkest subject matter into entertainment.
It's best to go into FOXCATCHER not knowing the facts of its true story; I only knew a few pieces of it - and that it would ultimately not have a very happy ending - so it gripped me from its quiet, eerie opening moments. Even if you know the tale of John Du Pont and his association with wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, however, you'll be hard-pressed not to be caught up in the slow-but-sure building of tension FOXCATCHER delivers. Perhaps even more so, since you'll be aware of the inevitable.
The story, at first, is about Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum); one-time gold medalist for the U.S.A. in wrestling, now slumming it as a trainer for his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also a gold medal winner. Dave has been able to parlay his credentials into owning a successful training school, has a beautiful family and a generally positive outlook on life. Mark, not as bright or socially adept, is like the brooding high school jock who never grew up; with a go-nowhere future and a yearning for the past, he's like a tiger pent up in a cage waiting for release.
Release comes in a rather ungainly form. One day Mark is called to the luxurious home of John Du Pont (Steve Carell), a wrestling enthusiast and scion to the famed Du Pont family, which made its fortune in munitions and chemicals. John, an unattractive middle-aged man with a raspy voice and an uncomfortable stare, offers Mark the opportunity to stay at his estate and train for the next Olympics; more than that, he wants Mark to lead an entire team to the gold. Stunned by this serendipity and not willing to question any possible ulterior motives, Mark agrees instantly. He begs his brother to accompany him, but a suspicious Dave turns him down. Mark is soon whisked away to this strange and isolated estate, where he lives alone in a guest house and begins his training, all under the watchful eye of John, who begins to insinuate himself into Mark's life as father figure, teacher and codependent friend.
"What does he get out of all this?" is a question Dave asks his brother early on, and there indeed lies the crux of the story. John at first seems like an untrustworthy older man smitten with the lean, gullible Mark, but it would be too easy to assume his interests lie there. We learn more about John: he's resentful of his family fortune, yet can't live without it (sometimes he acts out like an infant when he doesn't get what he wants). He disdains living in the shadow of his famous mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and her prized horses; he wants to make a name for himself. Perhaps he sees himself in Mark, who similarly has had to live with a name better associated with another family member (Mark is always "Dave's brother"). All that's certain is that their bond seems like destiny at first, but it quickly turns sour, as John's controlling and patronizing ways make Mark begin to resent and distrust his benefactor.
Miller stages every scene with a mood of muted despair. These characters appear to be suffering immensely internally, but their desperation is just held at bay. (Actually, not always for Mark, who has a tendency to abuse himself.) The film creates tension by letting sequences play out between characters who may seem to be engaging in a battle of wills, which is just as much about control as is wrestling. The result is movie that is both disturbing and melancholy. In short, the film takes on the personality of its characters, no more so than Du Pont. It's a master class of filmmaking, honestly, and as Miller proved with MONEYBALL, he can take a story that is ostensibly about the intense competition and heartache that sports can breed and turns it into something else completely.
Why does Mark so suddenly reject John? Is it this rejection that sets John off into a spiral of paranoia and depression, or is there more to it than that? FOXCATCHER doesn't play all of its cards, and this will frustrate people, even its supporters. The interesting thing of it is, FOXCATCHER may not even know. No one may ever really know why this story turned to tragedy, nor will they ever know if it could have been averted. FOXCATCHER gets it absolutely right by not attempting to have the answers; some things are just unknowable.
Though I do think Miller comes away the MVP of the film, most people will credit all of FOXCATCHER's success to its main cast. And with good reason: all three actors are terrific. Carell gives the kind of performance that simply transcends everything we know about the actor. With his birdlike hook nose and squeezed-in forehead, it's not just that he looks like completely different man - he is one. Like Charlize Theron in MONSTER, at first you think it's all about the make-up hiding the familiar face, but you soon come to realize this actor has totally transformed themselves in every way; and like Theron, Carell presents a character that is both categorically creepy and intensely pathetic. We're turned off by Du Pont almost immediately, and yet we acknowledge his suffering. A character you can't clearly describe is one worth getting to know, no matter how chilling the experience can be.
Tatum and Ruffalo are just as good. By now we know Tatum is more than just a good-looking guy with screen presence, but in FOXCATCHER he proves he can actually act, giving a performance of impressive vulnerability and pathos. He has a break down in a hotel room at one point that is incredibly powerful. Ruffalo, playing the sensible older brother, is tremendous in a part that isn't quite as one-note as it initially appears, for Dave too eventually becomes ensnared in Du Pont's world. He's wiser than Mark, which makes it all the more interesting that he finds himself side-by-side with him in Du Pont's training facility, dealing with the same mixed signals and frustrations. Ruffalo has a scene late in the movie where he's asked to deliver a few heartfelt words about Du Pont for a documentary crew, and watching him squirm as he tries to do so is one of the movie's great moments. (And almost certainly Ruffalo's Oscar clip.)
I need to see FOXCATCHER again; I'm still fascinated by the mysteries it holds. There are so many remarkable moments, where the director and his actors are giving nothing short of their all, that are simply mesmerizing, despite the inherent sadness they contain. Great movies have that power, and FOXCATCHER is a great movie.
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