Thursday, January 1, 2015

Movie Review: Foxcatcher

Directed by: Bennett Miller.
Written by: E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman.
Starring: Channing Tatum (Mark Schultz), Steve Carell (John du Pont), Mark Ruffalo (David Schultz), Sienna Miller (Nancy Schultz), Vanessa Redgrave (Jean du Pont), Anthony Michael Hall (Jack), Guy Boyd (Henry Beck), Brett Rice (Fred Cole), Jackson Frazer (Alexander Schultz), Samara Lee (Danielle Schultz), Francis J. Murphy III (Wayne Kendall).

Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is a precise and exacting drama – a film where the smallest, quietest gestures often speak the loudest. There isn’t a scene out of place, not a performance that hits a false note. It is a film based on a real life murder – but oddly, it doesn’t quite seem to build to that murder as inevitability, like many movies would. The murder, when it comes, is a little out of left field. There is no catharsis to it – just sadness that takes on tragic proportions in the final scenes that oddly, should be rousing, but come across as purposefully hollow.

The film centers on two men who were born with extraordinary, but completely opposite, gifts – but spend their entire lives searching for approval that they will never receive. Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) has already won an Olympic gold medal at the 1984 games, and is now training for next year’s 1988 games. He is the younger brother of Dave (Mark Ruffalo) – who won gold at the same games. The two love each other – in their way, but they are competitive, and there is bitterness and resentment that flows both ways, but is never commented upon. This dynamic is established in a brilliant opening sequence where the two train together, and without saying a word, you know everything you need to about these two and their relationship. Mark is shy and sullen – Dave is outgoing and charming. Everyone loves Dave – no one even remembers Mark.

The other main character, aside from Mark, is Jan du Pont (Steve Carell) – who was born, into the “richest family in America” – and seems to be the only descendant. When you have that much money, you can afford to be eccentric and no one will really question you. But eccentric would be a kind word to describe du Pont – who is clearly delusional to a huge degree, and begins the movie somewhat unhinged – and will only become more so as the film moves along. He reaches out to Mark – he wants him to train at his new, state of the art facility – Foxcatcher – he has built on his grounds. He will get a nice place to live, a lot more money than he’s used to, and can handpick the others he wants to train with. Du Pont also wants Dave – but Dave doesn’t come along at first. Unlike both Du Pont and Mark, Dave is married and has kids – he’s put down roots, and he doesn’t want to leave. At first, everything seems to be going good between Du Pont and Mark – but things slowly unravel. And when Dave eventually does join the trio, he also pushes the other two to extremes they otherwise wouldn’t go to. Dave doesn’t do anything to overtly undermine Mark, or challenge Du Pont’s authority – but he doesn’t have to do anything overt, for everyone to know what is happening.

The three central performances in the film are all among the best of the year. Tatum has never been better than he is here – it’s a quiet, restrained performance, and clearly the central one in the film. He plays a man forever in his brother’s shadow, who both craves his attention, and then resents it when he gets it. He wants to be more than just Dave Schultz’s little brother – and this could be his only chance. Mark is awkward around Du Pont, and around the world in which Du Pont lives in – he tries desperately to fit in, and never can. Carrel also does career best work. By now we shouldn’t be shocked when comedians do great dramatic work – they do it all the time – but this really is an extraordinary transformation. Yes, his nose has been covered in makeup, his teeth have been changed – but the performance goes far deeper than makeup. Du Pont, like Mark, has had to live in the shadow of an older relative – in this case his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who loves her, horses, and hates wrestling and Jon’s obsession with it. In two scenes – one where she calls wrestling a “low sport”, and another where she simply observes Jon at wrestling practice, she completely breaks him down. Carell breathes heavy throughout the movie, is prone to make speeches about America and what it means, and he low level temper tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants. His speeches are ridiculous, and help to underline (although not so heavily that the film becomes preachy) the themes of American exceptionalism and capitalism that run through the movie. In many ways, Ruffalo’s performance is the most difficult of the trio – as both Tatum and Carell are holding a lot back, never really vocalizing much of anything. They get along, for a time, because they do have some things in common – things that Dave doesn’t. Dave is used to getting his way – just like Du Pont is – but Dave gets it because his is charming, and good at what he does. In a scene late in the movie – the one that really does setup the murder that will happen shortly (that hadn’t been setup too much before) – he sells out his brother Mark, and directly confronts Du Pont, at the same time, with both of them in the room, and with a smile on his face the whole time. Dave is the most instantly relatable character – the most openly charming – but like the other two, he is flawed – just in a different way,

This is Bennett Miller’s best film to date – following up Capote (2005) and Moneyball (2011). He works slowly, and methodically – and here he has found material that is perfect for him. There was a lot more dialogue in Miller’s previous two films – that spelled themselves out a little bit more. Here, the themes are buried in body language – where a lot if going on when seemingly nothing is. The editing is precise, the cinematography moody and atmospheric, the score subtly helps set the tone for the film. For two hours, the film is about these three characters circling each other – sizing each other up, and applying their various power plays. The murder, when it happens, is shocking – but also deliberately anti—climactic. I’m not sure it really means anything greater in the larger scheme of the movie. But the very end of the movie really does – and drives the point of the movie home with devastating effect. This is one of the best movies of the year.

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