Sunday, November 16, 2014
Dir. Bennett Miller
3.5 out of 5
Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) begins Foxcatcher trapped in a life of quiet indignity. He's ekeing out a living as an amateur athlete and, even worse, feels overshadowed by his more successful and charismatic Olympian brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). So when eccentric billionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carrell) cold-calls him and invites him to du Pont's suburban Philadelphia mansion, Mark is thrilled by the potential of catching a huge break, even if he's worried that it might just be another dead end. In a similar way, Foxcatcher does a great job of cultivating an atmosphere where it feels like anything can happen, even though the story turns out to be another straightforward, somber treatise on the American Dream.
Foxcatcher strikes me as a movie that is trying very hard to not blow anything out of proportion. There seems to be little attempt to compress the details of the events that inspired E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's script, from du Pont's initial recruitment of Mark to oversee an elite wrestling club that lives and practices on his estate, to the two men's downward spiral caused by du Pont's erratic behavior, to Dave's late intervention to save what's left of Mark's career. It's a story ripe with themes of obsession, control, entitlement, and power. Yet, over a languid 130 minutes, Foxcatcher has difficulty emphasizing any of that. The garish details are exquisite (the art direction of the du Pont estate is essay-worthy) but the bigger picture remains muddled. Scenes simply come one after the other, make their single point, and then dissolve into memory.
Though a haphazard script and poor pacing threatens to sink Foxcatcher the longer it lasts, excellent performances keep it afloat. Director Bennett Miller is terrific with actors - remember, he guided Philip Seymour Hoffman to an Oscar in Capote and Brad Pitt to one of his most substantive star turns in Moneyball - and he proves this once more through his two leading men. Tatum is better than he's ever been, seemingly tensing every muscle in his body, transmitting both the frustration of a world-class athlete struggling to remain on top and the discomfort of an employee working for a psycho boss. Speaking of discomfort, there is Carrell, taking his gift of awkwardness and sanding off the cartoon safeguards to create something truly unnerving. He also does this while making a physical transformation: his beak-like nose, prosthetic teeth, and affected slouch make him resemble Gru, his animated alter ego in the Despicable Me films, only with way more creepy menace. (There's also fine work, as usual, from Ruffalo and Vanessa Redgrave as du Pont's disapproving mother.)
Foxcatcher presents itself as a tightly-coiled drama about what it takes to succeed in life's many arenas, be they athletic or interpersonal. In reality, it's the cinematic equivalent of an awkward pause. What the movie needs is to be more like Dave: assured, inquisitive, interesting. Instead, it is like Mark, a character burning with competitive fire but fundamentally a blank space, who eventually turns into a sullen child caught in the middle of a custody battle. Ultimately Foxcatcher always says what it means; it just has trouble saying it with meaning.