Saturday, November 15, 2014

Review: "Foxcatcher"

Director: Bennett Miller
Runtime: 134 minutes

An impressively reigned in dramatization of actual events, Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher represents another winner for the director following Capote and Moneyball. Plenty of attention has gone to Steve Carrell being cast against type, not to mention his prosthetic nose. Foxcatcher, however, has no need to rely on publicity-tailored gimmicks of casting and make up. Somber, but not suffocatingly so, Miller's latest is a stately yet steadily engrossing tale of a toxic struggle for recognition.

Despite owning an Olympic gold medal, wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) isn't exactly living the high life. He trains away in a dingy facility presided over by his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), an Olympic medalist as well. Yet only Dave seems to get proper recognition. Early on, Mark gives a speech to a local elementary school, but only because his older brother had to cancel at the minute. Ever when you're an Olympic gold medalist, it's still possible to be the understudy. To Mark's relief, that changes when multimillionaire John Du Pont (Carrell) lures him to his mansion and future training site. Though Dave takes longer to convince, Mark jumps at the chance to take the spotlight at the head of Team Foxcatcher, which Du Pont wants to be America's representative at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. 

For all of the footage of wrestling practice and talk about the Olympics, it's clear that Miller has no intention of making a traditional sports drama. The wrestling scenes aren't given any sort of glamorous make over. Instead, Miller and cinematographer Greig Fraser shoot everything in a distant, observational manner. The wrestling scenes play out like dialogue exchanges, rather than heart pounding fights for supremacy. 

As in Moneyball, Miller's real goal is to use a story rooted in the world of sports to get into the enigmatic heads of his characters. Deftly juggling the story's focus, Miller and his three editors carefully assemble the story so that every change in direction feels completely natural. We start following Mark, but then Du Pont creeps onto center stage, only to hand things off to Dave as the story winds down. Shifting focus across multiple characters is nothing new, but Miller's execution is so methodical that it never becomes a distraction when one of the three main actors vanishes for significant periods of time. 

Carrell, to his credit, never lets the fake schnoz do all of the acting for him. The real Du Pont's eccentricities and instability were toned down for the film, so the performance isn't especially showy. Yet Carrell still dons the man's off-kilter ego elegantly. Even in scenes that focus on other characters, Du Pont hovers around as a hook-nosed harbinger of vague existential doom. Ruffalo, initially a supporting player, turns in nuanced and compassionate work as Dave, the big brother protecting Mark from Du Pont's unsettling father figure.

Tatum, however, is the film's MVP. The role plays on and then subverts his lunkhead, masculine persona. Foxcatcher's most affecting moments, the ones that break through the gloomy grey visuals, are rooted in Tatum's portrayal of Mark's inferiority complex-saddled psyche. Moreso than the other performances in the film, Tatum's is built on an intricate marriage of an insecure center surrounded by the lumbering, hulking form of a world class wrestler. The actor has proved himself as a viable comedic leading man, but in Foxcatcher, he proves that he can also tackle a layered dramatic role given the right material.  

Additional aspects of the film are just as thoughtful and subtle. The detailed production design gives life to the Du Pont mansion and communicates its obsession with greatness without drawing attention away from the story. Spare musical contributions heighten the overcast, autumnal mood and subtly underscore the film's notion of warped patriotic fervor. Fraser's visuals, though initially nothing special, come to possess a stoic, haunting quality as Foxcatcher wades into unstable psychological waters. 

Foxcatcher has several compressions of time, most notably at the end, but never shortchanges the development of its characters. Du Pont's mental decline is never thoroughly explored, yet Miller and writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman manage to get their point across. Foxcatcher could have easily become the John Du Pont Show, but the film stays true to its intentions by not sensationalizing its events. Indulging would have made the story's truth too strange to work as fiction. By scaling back on the tabloid-ready details, Miller turns Foxcatcher into an austere, sobering look at the madness that can befall those who strive for greatness. 

Grade: B+/A-

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