Foxcatcher (dir. Bennett Miller)

Posted: January 14, 2015 in Uncategorized

America does this weird thing.  You see, it pumps people up to do something, like join the military or win Olympic Gold, and then later does nothing else for you.  In the US, we are pelted with a million different commercials for the military, are told that every single soldier is a hero fighting for our freedom…but then when their job as brainwashed cannon fodder is over, we ship them off to sub par VA hospitals, they discover college credits earned solely under military work don’t transfer to many colleges, and often have hard times attaining and maintaining civilian jobs.  The American deification of the military is a sham used to convince otherwise intelligent and able-bodied people to be unthinking cannon fodder for reasons that almost never have anything to actually do with freedom or safety for the country.

“Foxcatcher” does a better job than I would expect at using Olympic athletes as stand-ins for the military when making a point about America.  The point isn’t the main focus of the film, but when your film ends in people chanting “U.S.A” and the scene is filled with sadness, you’re probably saying something not very complimentary about America.  We start off with meeting Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, who does an excellent job at playing a guy who is not too bright without making him an out and out buffoon).  He’s an Olympic gold medal winner who, in the midst of the four year gap between winning that medal and the next summer Olympics, has been reduced to giving speeches about American exceptionalism and greatness to bored elementary school students for $20.00 a pop.  He lives in a sad and barely furnished apartment eating Ramen noodles.  He is the forgotten hero.  Some Olympic athletes may become popular enough to get endorsement deals, like Michael Phelps or Nancy Kerrigan.  Most, however, are only really famous in their specific circle of people who enjoy that one specific sport or competition, and are forgotten about by America-proper unless they, four years later, win again and allow the country to feel undeserved superior to the rest of the world.  Short-lived empty praise followed by being forgotten and destitute.  That seems to describe military service to me.

Things start to change for Shultz when he receives a call asking him to visit a man named John du Pont (Steve Carrell, behind some gimmicky make-up, but otherwise giving an astounding performance).  Du Pont is the heir to the chemical company fortune and lives in a mansion on a massive estate largely run by his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who raises champion horses and doesn’t seem to much care for her son.  John is not quite an eccentric rich man, but he’s getting there.  An avid ornithologist who wrote books about birds, he has turned his attention to wrestling.  Why?  The film draws a comparison to his mother and her horses by implying John sees his wrestlers as his own horses, and views training, building, and taming men to be a far higher art than that of horses.  The film also implies that du Pont is a closeted homosexual who may or may not make advances on the men, or at the very least enjoys the physical contact with half naked men on a more than sportsmanlike level.  Mommy issues, latent homosexuality, and your run-of-the-mill need to feel important, or admired, or worth something seem to be his main driving forces.  As a rich man who inherited his money and seems, in the film at least, to have done little work to earn or be deserving of such riches, the film showcases du Pont as a victim of his own insecurities.  He is the film’s villain as much for using his undeserved wealth to slave his mental wounds as he is for his real life crimes.  If the film is trying to subtly make some anti-American comments, and I think it is, this little jab at class and inherited wealth is just enough to not be harped on by Conservatives in the audience.  The military thing is under the surface enough that I doubt anyone else picked up on it outside of film students.

Mark has his own issues with inferiority.  His older brother David (Mark Ruffalo) also won a gold medal, and unlike Mark he is sought after to be a wrestling coach for various important organizations.  Mark feels his older brother’s shadow cast over him all the time, and while he loves his brother, that resentment is a heavy weight.  That $20.00 speaking gig at the school was originally meant for David.  When du Pont first woos Mark into coming to join his team of wrestlers, Team Foxcatcher, he has Mark try to bring David along as well.  David is a no-go, not wanting to uproot his family, but Mark is fairly happy about this, as it lets him be the big star on the team as he trains to try to win another Olympic gold medal.

Things go well for a while.  Mark wins an important event in France, he lives rent-free on du Pont’s estate while collecting a salary as he trains (and presumably helps train the other wrestlers, though we never see him do any coaching).  Later, du Pont casually introduces him to cocaine, there are impromptu late-night wrestling matches, and when du Pont eventually woos David to join as well, well, Mark feels like he’s no longer special.

The film assigns rather simple motives to all of the characters, and at the very least I’m sure du Pont had far more going on his brain in real life than the always unnervingly creepy film version of him does.  Carrell’s du Pont never seems like he’s anything other than a strange, creepy, almost-but-not-quite unhinged man whose obsession with wrestling, despite having no talent at the sport or in coaching the sport, comes across as odd from day one.  His stated motive for starting the team is to see America be great again.  Invoking American exceptionalism almost always works in this country, and Mark is daft enough to go along with it when nothing else in his life is going right, but Dave at one point does ask Mark what du Pont is getting out of all of this?

It would have been nice if the film had delved a bit more into du Pont’s psyche.  Reading up on the guy after the film, I learn he discovered about a dozen species of new birds, owned the world’s rarest stamp, and was married to a woman, briefly, who later claimed he threatened to throw her in a fire.  If anything, the film doesn’t make him eccentric enough.  I don’t fault Carrell’s performance, as he seems to be playing the character as written, and playing him pretty damn well.  The other main performances, from Tatum and Ruffalo, are spot-on, and Tatum deserves credit for finding ways to play a dumb meathead without falling into cliché.  This film shows both Carrell and Tatum as having levels of acting talent heretofore unseen from either of them, and it’s the centerpiece of the film.  We’re used to seeing Ruffalo do really good work, especially in the great “You Can Count on Me”, so perhaps that’s why he doesn’t stand out and shine as much as his costars despite doing a great job himself.

This is director Bennett Miller’s third film.  “Capote” was, I felt, an over-rated, mediocre film that, were it not for a great Philip Seymour Hoffman performance, would have been forgotten as a lame and boring biopic.  He then directed “Moneyball” after Soderbergh dropped out.  “Moneyball” was interesting simply for being a film about baseball (the most cinematic of sports thus far) that was less about the games and the playing of it than with the business decisions and mathematics behind creating a team.  It deconstructed the myth of sports as a vehicle for showcasing the triumph of the human body and spirit and broke it down to numbers on a spreadsheet and decisions made for profit, as all professional sports truly are.  “Foxcatcher” is, like the previous two films, based on a true story, and combines the true crime nature of the former film and the sports aspect of the latter film.  “Foxcatcher” looks nice and is shot well without drawing attention to its direction, and the score is often used in excellent ways.  He’s directed this script about as well as anyone could direct it.

This is a very good movie, but the script doesn’t quite delve deep enough into the characters’ psychologies, even as it does an admirable job communicating some messages in a not-on-the-nose fashion.  The acting and the directing elevate the script above its small flaws so that we wind up with a film that looks and sounds great, but is just missing enough meat to actually be a great film.  Despite all of that, it’s a very good film telling an interesting story (so interesting I wanted to look up more details about the real life events immediately upon viewing it). B.

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