Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, February 20, 2015

Recent Watches: Foxcatcher (2014)

So the story goes: An actor primarily known for comedic performances decides to do a serious drama. For extra bonus points, the movie is based on a true story and the actor covers his face with extensive make-up. “Foxcatcher” boasts all of these elements. The murder of David Schultz by eccentric millionaire John du Pont is truly one of those “fact-is-stranger-than-fiction” stories. Steve Carell, a once promising actor who has slummed it a lot over the years, has earned plenty of critical acclaim for his part, presumably not just because he wore a fake nose. Channing Tatum earned a fair amount of praise too, finally putting his image as just a pretty face (or set of abs) behind him. “Foxcatcher” genuinely captures the intensity of the personalities involved and the unpredictable oddness of what happened.

John du Pont, the heir of the du Pont fortune, is a man of many interests: Birds, stamps, science, guns, military histories. But, above all else, Olympic wrestling. He wants to establish himself as a serious wrestling coach and investor. To further this goal, he recruits Mark Schultz, a gold medal winning wrestler with a troubled personal life. At first, the relationship is beneficial for both. du Pont earns respectability as a wrestling coach and Schutlz feels wanted and useful. Mark’s older brother David, also a gold medal winner, is also soon recruited. This forces Mark and John apart, leading to a disastrous match, which ends in murder.

The strongest attribute of “Foxcatcher” is the film’s chilly atmosphere. From the beginning, a tone of disquiet and isolation is established. There’s very little music for the first half, establishing a mood of quiet unease. The loneliness and off-putting eccentricities of the characters are emphasized. From the beginning of the film, we know that something is going to go wrong, that this will end in bloodshed. However, “Foxcatcher” is not truly a thriller. Pursuing the real event’s Wikipedia page lets you know what will happen. It’s not suspense the movie generates. Instead, “Foxcatcher” is an examination of loneliness and psychological frustration. du Pont wants to earn respect at something he loves, as a way to get back at his distant mother but also to impress her. Mark lives in his brother’s shadow and wants to break away. Yet neurosis and ego get in the way, leading to both men’s downfall. The film’s presentation does a good job of putting the viewer in the mind of these troubled people.

The film is built around three effective performances. Steve Carell’s role as du Pont is mesmerizingly odd. The make-up makes Carell more rat-like, with a bigger nose, more prominent teeth, and beadier eyes. du Pont slouches in big chairs and speaks with an odd, nasally whine. His fascination with wrestling doesn’t fit his white collar background. John, at one point, insists Mark calls him “Golden Eagle.” He bitches out the people he just bought a tank from because of its factually inaccurate gun. He introduces the boy to cocaine, which du Pont sniffs casually and frequently. He writes verbose speeches for the monosyllabic Mark to say. Despite being a pudgy old man, du Pont takes up wrestling himself, in the over-fifty league. (A real thing that apparently exists.) He, more then once, wrestles with the buff young men, crawling on them. The film infers, without confirming, that du Pont’s interest in wrestling is homoerotic in nature. The only time du Pont let’s his carefully constructed shield down is when he tells Mark that he is his first, real friend. He’s such a bizarre character with so many strange attributes that all an actor can do is inhabit them honestly. Carell succeeds at this, making du Pont as uncomfortable and creepy as he probably was in real life.

If “Foxcatcher” focused solely on du Pont’s eccentricity, it would have a lot less value as a film. The Schultz brothers' own story of rivalry and depression compliments du Pont’s oddness. Despite being an Olympic athlete, Mark Schultz lives a miserable life. He gives speeches to an auditorium full of bored school kids. He eats instant ramen and passes the time playing Gameboy. His brother, meanwhile, has a wife and two kids. He seems much happier. Mark envies David. When du Pont calls on him, despite the old man’s strange behavior, it still makes Mark feel special. Channing Tatum plays Mark as a shallow lug of a man. He’s not a deep person, so all his hurt and frustration are right on his face. After fowling a wrestling match, he wrecks his hotel room, beats himself up, and binge eats. He’s as uncomfortable in du Pont’s world as du Pont is everywhere. Mark Ruffalo, beefed up to bear-like proportions, is lovable, focused, and happy. It’s easy to see while David seems so well-adjusted and how that could make his brother petty and jealous. Ruffalo is good but I don’t how he was nominated over Tatum, whose performance is desperate, sad, and brutally honest.

As the relationship between the men degrades, “Foxcatcher’s” status as a sad tragedy falls into place. Mark’s performance offends du Pont who begins to favor his brother. Falling into a depression, Mark slacks on his wrestling. Seeing his brother is troubled, David proves how swell a guy he is. He forces Mark onto a bike and has him dropping six pounds in ninety minutes. Yet it’s not enough and Mark still chokes on the game. The film doesn’t explore what happens much in detail. Why did du Pont target David? His fragile ego was obviously shattered by the loss. Yet why would he kill David instead of Mark? Why would he do it in public? How much did drugs and depression influence his decision? “Foxcatcher” doesn’t seek answers. Carell’s du Pont remains a question mark through to the end. The ambiguity enhances the film’s disquieting effect. The film doesn’t explore the story much after the shooting, not du Pont’s stand-off with police, the court case, or Mark’s reaction to his brother’s death. Instead, the act of violence is the sad, inevitable conclusion to this dark, strange tale.

Well, there is one more scene before the credits. It seems to suggest that Mark is still looking for validation and for someone to love him, in some way. “Foxcatcher” is beguiling, creeping, and odd. The performances are top notch. The musical score, when it appears at all, is well utilized. The chilly cinematography cements the movie’s intention. But it’s the script, which never backs away from the complex, unusual, or off-putting material, that should be most commended here. [8/10]

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