Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Foxcatcher: A Review (Review #717)


Despite their massive wealth, the du Pont family makes an art out of staying out of the public eye.  In recent memory only two du Ponts have really made an impact.  One of them is the former Governor of Delaware, Pierre "Pete" du Pont, an oddity due to the family's general avoidance of politics.  The other is John E. du Pont, who in 1996 murdered professional wrestler Dave Schultz at his estate, Foxcatcher.  This too was odd given the family's general avoidance of scandal, but killing someone does qualify as scandal par excellence.  Foxcatcher is the fact-based film of this shocking act, and director Bennett Miller goes to great lengths to make the incoming doom obvious.

That may be part of the problem.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is an Olympic gold medalist in wrestling, but he is also living under the shadow of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), an Olympic gold medalist in wrestling as well.  Mark quietly wanders through life, unsure if he will ever be as good as Dave or be seen as anything other than "Dave's brother".  Enter into his life John du Pont (Steve Carell), an eccentric wrestling enthusiast to say the least.  Beak-nosed and with a particularly odd manner, du Pont offers Mark a golden opportunity: to train at du Pont's personal expense at his estate for his Team Foxcatcher. Du Pont wants to build champions, and something about restoring American greatness or something equally nutty.  Pretty soon, the weak Mark goes head-first into the weird world of John E. du Pont, being seduced (perhaps in more ways than one) into a world of wealth, drugs, and a need to be valued.

Dave for his part turned down du Pont's initial offer, deciding to stay at home with his wife and children.  As du Pont gets further entangled into Mark's life, we see the strain on his life.  He let's his hair grow, he has no problems taking on more cocaine, and he doesn't give wrestling the full attention it deserves.  After a spat, du Pont declares Mark an 'ungrateful ape' and manages, despite his moral rectitude, to get Dave to join Team Foxcatcher.  Watching all this with a very disapproving eye is Mama Jean du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave), who values horses over the low sport of wrestling her wittle boy loves.  As time goes on we find the far from the champion du Pont envisioned, Mark pretty much collapses under the strain.  He barely makes the 1988 Seoul Olympic team and there, he bombs big-time.  After the fiasco at Seoul, Mark leaves Foxcatcher but Dave decides to stay on and serve as a coach to the other wrestlers.  On January 26, 1989, after du Pont finishes watching a documentary about what would have been his triumphant molding of Olympic wrestlers, du Pont drives to Dave's house in his estate, finds Dave working on his car radio, and asks, "Do you have a problem with me?"  Before anyone can answer, du Pont pulls a gun and shoots Dave three times, leaving Dave's wife Nancy (Sienna Miller) and du Pont's security man Jack (Anthony Michael Hall) horrified.  Du Pont for his part, calmly drives away, arrested a couple days later.  Foxcatcher ends with Mark Schultz, still in disarray, about to enter a MMA fight.

If I were to put a specific reason as to why I didn't think as highly on Foxcatcher as my brethren, it would be because director Bennett Miller made what I consider a fatal decision.  He made it clear from the get-go that THIS was a tragedy, giving Foxcatcher a pervading sense of doom that sucked out any real sense of tension.  Perhaps this was Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's intentions, but for me, from the moment we hear Rob Simonsen's score echoes Barber's Adagio for Strings the film all but ANNOUNCES the darkness and tragedy of Foxcatcher, these figures are condemned to: Dave's death, John's mental disintegration, and Mark's moral corruption. 

Again and again while watching Foxcatcher the word "obviously" kept cropping up.  It's OBVIOUS du Pont is bonkers.  It's OBVIOUS Mark is weak.  It's OBVIOUS Mamma du Pont disapproves.  That isn't just the 'obvious' of the obvious.  There are moments visually when we get told more than dialogue does.  Sometimes this works wonderfully (such as when du Pont wins a seniors wrestling tournament with Mark as his coach while we observe one of du Pont's lackeys slipping the competitor an envelope).  Sometimes, though, one wonders whether Miller was going a bit overboard.

At one point, du Pont wakes Mark to have some 'training' in the gallery of his lavish estate.  Visually, it looks like du Pont is all but raping Mark.  The very creepy du Pont is all but looking down on Mark as he metaphorically sodomizes Mark.  That could have passed as mere artistic license, but du Pont does it again, culling another wrestler named Roberto Garcia (Daniel Hilt, whom I suspect is not Hispanic) and all but having sex in front of Mamma du Pont, who leaves the wrestling facility in disgust.  Whether he meant to disgust her or not we can guess (I figure he did), but sometimes one can gild the lily a touch too much.

I kept wondering why Mark, despite being OBVIOUSLY dimwitted, would not have seen that du Pont was flat-out bonkers.  One can't fire a gun into the ceiling of their training facility without making someone wonder whether he is playing with a full deck.  I kept wondering how someone as overtly creepy as John du Pont could talk the formerly stalwart Dave to join Team Foxcatcher (which we never got an answer to).  I kept wondering how du Pont managed to create his little worshipful coven on Foxcatcher Farms.  I think because Miller and Company were so intent on making it...OBVIOUS, that Foxcatcher is this deep, dark, tale, that subtlety pretty much went out the window.  The music, the cinematography, the pervading sense of doom even during what should have been happy moments (like Mark finding a patron who apparently believed in him), it all takes away from what could have been a growing sense of doom and despair.

Anyone seen my cigarette holder?

It doesn't help that Carell, in his naked bid for an Oscar nomination (richly rewarded at the expense of David Oyelowo's Martin Luther King, Jr. for Selma), decided he was going to play Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, Sr.  I made a comment that it was no surprise John E. du Pont liked birds, given his beak-like nose.  Carell didn't so much act as pose, a lot, cocking his head and striking a pose at every opportunity.  Perhaps the real du Pont was this freakish looking (making how he lured the Schultz Brothers more bizarre), but it certainly added to the generally bonkers style to du Pont.

It wasn't just his Penguin looks that makes the performance a touch showy, but it's his mannerisms, his obvious discomfort with people, his faux-patriotic speeches (and that shooting fixation) that makes one wonder again why people didn't just run from him in sheer fear.  One would expect that he could lure people to his side, but because Carell was playing du Pont as obviously insane and creepy we never got the sense of charm slipping into possessive maniac.  Instead, from the moment we start we see du Pont is either evil or dangerous, making everyone else's choices seem rather irrational.

To me, Steve Carell's entire performance can be wrapped up in one word: posing.  He poses, a lot, determined to show off how his nose and waddle are more impressive than Burgess Meredith, Danny DeVito or Robin Lord Taylor combined!

Faring much better are Rufallo and Tatum as the Schultz Brothers.  Foxcatcher is really a struggle for Mark's soul, and we did sense that Dave loved his brother (though how he got into du Pont's clutches we don't know).  I am no fan of Tatum, but at least here he again tries to bring depth to Mark's self-loathing and insecurity.  Maybe because Tatum is playing a dimwitted character I figure it isn't a stretch, but again, he does try.

Foxcatcher is above all else, obvious in how it handles this bizarre story.  It isn't that Foxcatcher is a bad film.  Some moments are quite well-formed, but by and large because it would not let up on THE DOOM all around, Foxcatcher goes overboard where subtlety would have made it better. 



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