Wednesday, January 28, 2015
Foxcatcher Movie Review
One of the lesser known footnotes to modern Olympic history is the relationship of John Du Pont to the Olympic wrestling gold medalist brothers Mark and Dave Schultz. It’s a funny thing that no one pays much attention to the sport of wrestling outside of the quadrennial Olympic cycle, but there’s something so quintessentially American about the sport Of course it’s been around since the ancient games of Greece and eastern Europeans often excel at it, but the American ideal is intrinsically bound to it. It’s a sport based on physical confrontation one-on-one. You succeed based on your own abilities. It is a total make-it-or-break-it scenario. It’s about a fiercely intense combination of brute strength and cunning strategic skills. You have to be tough and strong, but also to outwit your opponent.
Bennett Miller, who previously directed one of the best sports movies that wasn’t really about sports, applies his touch to the Schultz brothers and Du Pont with Foxcatcher, from a script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, who have given us a movie that is as much about wrestling as Raging Bull was about boxing. That is to say, the sport is upstage by the personality of the protagonist who participates in it. Mark trains with his older brother, Dave, both of whom are preparing for the World Championships and eventually the 1988 Olympics. There’s love between the brothers made palpable by the tenderness in Mark Ruffalo’s performance as Dave. As Mark, Channing Tatum turns physical ability into performance much like he did in Magic Mike. Both roles demand of the actor a full body commitment. Tatum inhabits Mark and perhaps even channels some of what Robert De Niro had as Jake La Motta to get at the heart of a young man for whom winning is the only thing and intensity is a drug.
Du Pont enters Mark’s life by summoning him to his estate in Pennsylvania and proposing that he come live there to train with his Team Foxcatcher. Du Pont gives him a speech about American tradition and exceptionalism, about pride and honor, and about winning and patriotism. I think he even believes himself when he tells Mark that his only interest is to help his country win gold. What Du Pont doesn’t understand about himself is that, at least insofar as Futterman and Frye have written him, he’s a social misfit who never had any friends, doesn’t possess any real athletic ability of his own, and desperately seeks approval, especially from his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who considers wrestling vulgar.
As a character, Du Pont comes across cartoonish. I don’t want to beat up on Steve Carell, who does what he can with what I imagine was misdirection, because I admire him and I think he’s an incredible talent, but everything about his portrayal of Du Pont is just off. Everything from his stilted manner of conversing and the discomfort we feel in his presence to the way he shuffles around with shifty legs and a stiff upright upper body as if he’s just too lazy to carry himself in the manner his family would expect of him is an acting misstep. I just don’t believe him as a character. There’s nothing human in the performance. He has more in common with Gru, the cartoon hero of Despicable Me, voiced by Carell. Only the cartoon was more convincing.
Truly I blame Miller’s direction. I think he must have worked with Carell in crafting a character that was as unconvincing as the entire atmosphere he produced. I can’t recall any film quite as dour as this. Exteriors are shrouded in clouds, rain, and gloom. Interiors are cramped and stilting when we’re not at the estate and lonesome and depressing when we are. The camera moves minimally. No one ever has just a normal conversation. It’s all sadness and glum announcements.
Any semblance of joy has been sucked out of every scene including wrestling scenes that have Schultz winning. This is what it looks like to loathe winning, I think. We should never make the mistake in cinema of confusing dourness with greatness. Movies are great in part because the filmmaking style matches the story or subject matter. Here that does not happen.
Also at issue is the ending of the film and fate of Dave Schultz, who was shot and killed by Du Pont. The movie takes us to that scene as the story’s conclusion. Or I should say, the movie shows us. We’re not taken there by any means, at least not in any sense that meshes with reality. Foxcatcher is so desperate to be about American modes of masculinity, the search for paternalism, and the desire to be accepted as a winner that it eventually loses focus on the true story of these three men. There’s compelling drama here, to be sure. What drove Du Pont to bankroll the training of a wrestler he didn’t know personally? The movie provides something only slightly more interesting than a connect-the-dots plot that indicates Du Pont was a big mama’s boy who wanted to impress her.
As the movie presents it, Mark leaves Foxcatcher and the companionship of Du Pont while Dave remains with his family as a full time wrestling trainer and coach. Then Du Pont drives up to Dave’s residence on the estate and shoots him dead. They make it seem as if one event shortly followed the other, somehow connecting Du Pont’s agitated state of mind to Mark’s abandoning him and his apparent jealousy of Dave as a stronger father figure in Mark’s life than he could ever hope to be. In reality, the shooting occurred about seven years after Mark left Foxcatcher. Witnesses who knew Du Pont and the elder Schultz attest to their friendship through those years and Du Pont’s increasing depression and mood swings. He was likely suffering a mental illness that, left untreated, got worse and worse and Mark ended up the unfortunate victim of Du Pont’s madness. No one will ever know what really went through Du Pont’s mind before and during the shooting, but it’s a disservice to everyone involved to invent some simplistic motive.
This troubles me for the same reasons I was bothered by the changes to fact made by The Imitation Game. There are good stories wrapped up in both movies and neither needed embellishment to craft compelling drama. And Miller does his own movie no favors at all by making it completely soulless.