By James Hancock November 15th, 2014
I’ve been looking forward to seeing “Foxcatcher” for months and last night I finally had the privilege of being immersed in this relentlessly dark and fascinating drama from director Bennett Miller (“Capote” (2005), “Moneyball” (2011)). The movie is based on the true story of the tragedy that befell Olympic wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz due to their involvement with their mentally ill benefactor, millionaire John du Pont. While Mark at first feels that he has found the perfect mentor and father figure in John du Pont and earnestly seeks his validation, their relationship ultimately proves to be destructive, a relationship that derails Mark’s wrestling career and results in the murder of his brother Dave. This is a grim movie and not everyone will find it easy to surrender to the movie’s style of storytelling but as a showcase for the talents of Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell and Mark Ruffalo one could easily make a case that in “Foxcatcher” all three actors deliver the finest work of their careers. Most movies about sports tend to be formulaic, predictable nonsense designed to make the audience feel good, but “Foxcatcher” couldn’t fall more outside of that pattern. While this film is ostensibly about wrestling and the Olympics, it tackles so much more from the love/hate fraternal strife of the Schultz brothers to the du Pont family’s attempts at mythologizing their family dynasty and their role in American history. The film also marks a clear transition in the careers of the three male leads. I was already a fan of Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo, but moving forward I can’t imagine Carell and Tatum will find it so easy to return to the world of some of the cotton candy romantic comedies and adolescent male fantasy adventures they have worked on in the past.
From what I’ve read, Bennett Miller cultivated a depressing atmosphere on the set where the lead actors had almost no interaction except for when they were performing together. Miller’s unconventional approach has paid off in spades. The look, mood and atmosphere of “Foxcatcher” are for me the film’s greatest selling points and the three leads each bring something unique to the table contributing to this overall sense of dread. Carell is unforgettable as John Du Pont, a fascinating character who clings desperately to his delusions that his barely concealed homoerotic fascination with wrestlers will somehow help inspire the people of the United States to recapture the greatness of the past, a past that the du Pont family is obsessed with. John du Point’s warped sense of patriotism is disturbing to behold but even more unnerving are his pitiful attempts to earn the respect and approval of his mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave) , a woman even more eccentric than John. I can’t remember the last contemporary movie that communicates so much information in scenes with little to no dialogue. Watching Mark and Dave Schultz warm up on the mat at the opening of the film tells us all we need to know about their relationship in a matter of minutes. The wrestling scenes deserve special recognition. This is not an action movie, but the wrestling scenes have a dramatic intensity unlike anything I’ve seen in quite a while. I was never a wrestler but I am a fanatic for Mixed Martial Arts and the authenticity of the wrestling scenes give the film added gravitas especially as we see the gradual decay of Mark’s physical and mental well being after months of living on the du Pont estate as John du Pont’s favorite pet.
I have one factual bone to pick with the movie that just about any hardcore fan of Mixed Martial Arts is likely to catch. The scene in question takes place when Mark Schultz and his team are preparing for the Olympic Trials for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. John du Point catches the squad slacking off watching a famous UFC fight between Gary Goodridge and Paul Herrera at UFC 8. The fight is famous for the manner in which Goodridge finished his opponent and is appropriate for the film in that Mark Schultz would later defeat Gary Goodridge at UFC 9. I understand why Bennett Miller would choose to include this moment from UFC history in the film, however, the Goodridge-Herrera fight did not take place until 1996. I know the majority of the audience will not notice or care but for me it is incredibly distracting when a filmmaker gets sloppy with their chronology especially with a movie that puts itself out there as a true story. Maybe the clip worked better at that point in the movie, maybe it was expedient to the screenwriters in terms of the movie’s structure, but with an intense drama about true events I think it is the responsibility of the filmmaker to find a solution without violating historical facts that are important to one of the key target audiences of the movie.
What I love most about the movie is how it does not sermonize to the audience or tell then what conclusions to make. With its sparse use of dialogue, audiences are going to have to come to their own conclusions about “Foxcatcher” and there’s no doubt in my mind that this film will spark some very lively debates about sports, politics, wealth, mental health and homosexuality. For Bennett Miller I feel this is a giant leap forward in his career. I thought “Moneyball” was an absolute blast to watch but with ‘Foxcatcher” Miller has not only won the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival but has also alerted cinephiles around the world that he is a major filmmaker ready to explore disturbing subject matter and shock his audiences out of their complacency. This Fall has already seen the release of so many outstanding movies, and we still have movies like “Inherent Vice”, “Leviathan” and “Maps to the Stars” coming our way. It is a very good time to be a movie fan.
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