Movie review: ‘Foxcatcher’Movie Review Thursday, November 20th, 2014
I remember first reading about the strange case of John du Pont, the extremely odd heir to the du Pont fortune who was murderously obsessed with Olympic wrestlers, in an article in a gay newspaper 20 years ago. The supposition at the time was that no one could be as obsessed with wrestling as to build an Olympic training facility on his estate and pay dozens of absurdly fit young men to lift weights and roll around the floor with each other and not be gay. Not having thought much about du Pont after reading the article until I saw the film based on his ill-fated wrestling obsession Foxcatcher, I was a little surprised when the film depicted him as not a creepy gay man with too much money and no boundaries but rather just a creepy man with too much money and no boundaries (as well as sundry mental illnesses). Internet research more or less corroborated the film’s version of du Pont, who is played with a hideous prosthetic nose and many, many mannered ticks by Steve Carell, making a grand play for seriousness and an Oscar.
The film itself is Oscar bait: It’s based on a depressing true story, directed by an Oscar nominee Bennett Miller, written by Oscar nominees E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, and features actors either on the cusp of seriousness, like Carell and Channing Tatum or already there, like Oscar-nominee Mark Ruffalo and five-time Oscar-nominee, one-time winner Vanessa Redgrave. Miller has already won the Best Director prize at Cannes for Foxcatcher, and the film is being promoted as an award magnet. And I think it will get nominated for a bunch and win a few, though maybe not at the Academy Awards. As wonderful as its pedigree is, and as handsome as it looks, the film is too cold and too enigmatic. By the end, the weirdness of the story never gives way to insight, just gloom.
Both Mark Shultz (Tatum) and his brother David (Ruffalo) won gold medals at the 1984 Olympics, and while David parlayed his fame to a coaching job, Mark is at loose ends, living alone and training with a scowl. One day, out of the blue, Mark is asked to fly to Pennsylvania and meet John du Pont at his vast estate, Foxcatcher. du Pont tells Mark that he wants to create a world-class wrestling training facility and help bring America back to greatness. He’s obsessed with winning, and yet despises the trophies his mother’s horses have won. He seems to despise his mother. A lot.
Even though du Pont is clearly weird – awkward, snobbish, self-important, overly indulgent of alcohol – Mark is enamored by du Pont’s vision and decides to join him. David refuses to come, because he doesn’t want to uproot his family, but this helps Mark, who always felt he was in his older brother’s shadow. As Mark trains himself and a team of recruits, he begins to see du Pont as a sort of father figure. They become very close, and then too close, and things sour when du Pont brings David to Foxcatcher to fix the problems Mark had created. And then things start really going badly.
It’s hard to tell who made the film so starkly beautiful, the brilliant cinematographer Greig Fraser or Miller’s direction. But they are both at fault for making the film so icy and bleak, which works in many places but is relentless after two hours. Carell’s performance is showy and effective, in that he telegraphs crazy and desperate very well, but it’s also hammy and obvious. Tatum and Ruffalo, however, are brilliant. Ruffalo is always this good; everything he does on camera is sympathetic and believable. Tatum, who looks spectacular in a wrestling singlet but tempers the sexy with an awkward lumber, is surprisingly moving as a not-so-swift, very damaged athlete who just wants to win. I’d rather he get the Oscar nomination that Carell is campaigning for.
Directed by Bennett Miller
Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
Starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo
Opens Nov. 21 at Landmark Hillcrest
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