Thursday, December 11, 2014
Director: Bennett Miller
Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Gut Boyd, Brett Rice
Running Time: 134 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Every so often an actor crawls so far deep under the skin of a deplorable character that they almost make viewers ill with each on screen appearance. That's only magnified when the character in question is based on an actual person, or more accurately in this case, a real life monster. Steve Carell's performance as John du Pont, the man convicted of murdering Olympic gold medal wrestler Dave Schultz in 1996, is so disturbing that "understanding" his twisted motivations and emotional instability doesn't help soften the edge. The more you learn, the more you'll hate his guts. Empathy isn't an option here. He's a sad, lonely sack of a man so desperate for respect and adulation that he's sure throwing his family's money around will earn him a seat at the cool kids' table. And for a little while it works, until his personal hang-ups and mommy issues start taking center stage.
Du Pont is the nightmare version of one of those isolated, rich sports franchise owners who get way too involved in an arena they know nothing about. And his beady eyes show no traces of the funnyman who starred on The Office or The 40-Year-Old Virgin, even as Carell and Moneyball director Bennett Miller force the audience to reassign the latter film's protagonist to a dramatic tragedy, making us wonder what happens when guys like him turn into psychopaths. Du Pont finds his star protege in someone who seems to share a similar philosophy and is almost as lonely, searching for a mentor and father figure despite already having the best one there is. Uncompromisingly bleak and unnervingly cold, Foxcatcher does manage to be darkly funny at times, but more often it's deadly serious, unflinchingly presenting its true crime story and the unusual circumstances surrounding it.
It's 1987, three years after brothers and training partners Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) both won wrestling gold at the Los Angeles Olympics. The older, more renowned Dave's career is continuing to thrive as both an athlete and a coach while the more uncertain Mark struggles to map out his future, relegated to taking speaking engagements where they mistake him for his brother. He knows he wants to compete at the World Championships and go on to win gold at the '88 games in Seoul, but isn't sure of the path that will get him get there. Enter eccentric millionaire chemical heir John E. du Pont, a self-professed "patriot" who offers to financially support him and his team, allowing them to board and train at his family's famed Foxcatcher Farm estate in rural Pennsylvania, where he's just built a state-of-the-art wrestling facility.
For the directionless Mark, the offer proves too enticing to pass up, but Dave is a much harder sell, refusing to uproot his wife, Nancy (Sienna Miller) and two kids for a big payday. Things start off well, until it becomes painfully clear John's a paranoid sociopath who's slowly breaking Mark down emotionally and using the team as a weapon against his disapproving mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave). Her equestrian pursuits a top priority, she views wrestling as "low" and her son's obsession with it ridiculous. The more involved John gets with his team, the more dangerous he becomes, pitting the brothers against each other in a desperate, pathetic bid to vicariously achieve the success he never had on his own, with tragic results.
The scenes between du Pont and Mark are so quiet and awkward you can hear a pin drop. From the beginning there's a tension as Mark tries to figure out what this strange man's motives are. But it is a generous offer, with John being legitimately sincere about his desire for Mark and Team USA to succeed, at least in his own mind. Like most delusional or mentally unbalanced people, he means exactly what he's saying, tricking himself before anyone else.
Seeds of the millionaire's eventual psychotic breakdown are subtly planted from the moment Carell first shuffles onto screen, his face hidden behind heavy aging makeup and a bulbous prosthetic nose, which he seems be talking through while panting through his mouth. It all enhances the overall effect, even if it's present only supplement a transformation that's already creepy and masterful on its own. He's working from the inside out to create du Pont, or at least some version of him that rivals the insanity of the real man.
While it's tempting to label Mark as merely a musclehead from the get-go, there's no reason for him to doubt his benefactor's intentions other than that he seems like any other eccentric rich guy on the surface. And therein lies that tightrope walk that is Channing Tatum's performance, which stands as the best work he's ever done, even when compared to the major creative strides he's made over the past couple of years. He makes you think Mark isn't the sharpest tool in the box, and he may not be, but is careful enough to play him as lonely and slightly gullible. And yet he's still perceptive enough to sense when John's gone too far and it's time to leave.
If John has no friends then Mark has exactly one: His big brother. In an incredible early training scene you see the love and respect Dave has for him, yet also sense some of the resentment and jealousy coming from Mark. Du Pont pounces on that, but a switch flips when Dave rejects his offer to also train at Foxcatcher. Perceiving him as a threat to his "friendship" with Mark, he silently fumes when he seems to take over his role as mentor, father and coach. But it's a role that Dave always owned and any underlying tension between brothers doesn't come close to matching the tension present in every uncomfortable interaction du Pont has. But it's the eventual addition of Dave into the equation that really sets him off.
Scenes of John's creepiness and eccentricity border on the darkly comic, whether he's interrupting practice with a loaded firearm, buying tanks, or displaying the team's medals in his trophy room. It's especially evident when he convinces himself he's not only an inspiring leader, but a superstar wrestler, actually taking to the mat himself without any knowledge of the sport, nor an athletic bone in his body. One of the saddest and funniest movie moments of the year unfolds when he clumsily tries to advise and coach, with Dave looking on incredulously and his own mother pitying him from the sidelines. Dave senses something's off with him from the start with Ruffalo, ever so slightly implying those doubts on his quizzical face the entire time.
Ruffalo would seem to be an odd choice to portray the fallen Schultz brother, but he spends each minute of his screen time proving otherwise. Unlike Tatum, he doesn't look like a wrestler, but he captures the tenacity and methodical approach of someone who's risen to the top of their sport. The actor does so much by seemingly doing so little, making sure we know Dave has the missing piece of the puzzle his little brother, arguably the more natural athlete, lacks. It's in how he talks, walks and even thinks. Mark doesn't have that confidence and the problem is in where he goes to find it. Dave represents everything du Pont hates. Respected not for the size of his bank account, but his accomplishments, he's the guy this weasel has spent his life trying to be. He's a top shelf athlete and human being so completely sure of himself and committed to his family that no amount of money could lure him to Foxcatcher. It's his concern for Mark that ultimately gets him there. And it ends up being his last stop.
It's rare you find a picture this consistently dark and depressing, with hardly a moment of uplift to be found, unless you count some of du Pont's theatrics, but even that's tempered by the knowledge of impending doom, omnipresent in Rob Simonsen's hypnotically sinister score and a dreary but beautiful Foxcatcher Farm that's permanently cloaked in darkness. Fog, rain, night or snow seems to engulf every other shot and once the film settles into its pacing it feels as if the characters and audience are taken on a long death march to the inevitable conclusion, with hearts pounding.
We know what happens but we never really knew how, and the the film's filled with surprising little details along that journey, making us feel that this is a story that hasn't been told and needs to be. That few outside those following the sport even knew about Dave Schultz's younger brother or that the events surrounding the murder revolved around him, only further solidifies that. Watching Carell, Tatum, and Ruffalo pull from each other the performances of their careers is the biggest revelation, but its cold, unsettling approach to an overlooked story is what will linger in your mind long afterward.