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TIFF 2014: Foxcatcher Review

Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo reach for Oscar gold in this bleak wrestling drama.

When you think of the word aristocracy, it's most likely you think of the French aristocracy, or perhaps the British aristocracy, but one country that probably doesn't come to mind is America. However, even the "Land of the Free and Home of the Brave" has its privileged families and few families' histories go as far back or are as vaunted as the Du Ponts. The Du Ponts were French immigrants who first came to America in 1800 and quickly built a business empire manufacturing gun powder. The Du Pont company today is a major corporation that employs thousands of people, but while the company itself may be thriving, the generations of wealth and power haven't fared well on the psyche of the family's descendants. Case in point: John Du Pont. John Du Pont (Steve Carell) and his relationship with two Olympic wrestling brothers, Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, respectively), are the central focus of director Bennett Miller's third feature film, Foxcatcher. Du Pont, among a number of other things, considered himself a champion of amateur wrestling, and in order to guarantee America's rightful place as the top country in the world in this sport, Du Pont goes on a personal mission to fund and train his own world-class wrestling team known as Team Foxcatcher, named after his Foxcatcher farm estate. In order to achieve his lofty goals, Du Pont recruits Mark Schultz, a young wrestler who had already won Olympic gold in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. At first, the relationship goes off wonderfully, as the two get the team trained and form a close bond. As Du Pont and Mark Schultz spend increasingly more time together, their relationship begins to morph in strange and unhealthy ways, as the faux father-son, mentor-mentee kinship devolves into an abusive master-slave understanding. After an unpleasant moment with his never satisfied mother (Vanessa Redgrave), Du Pont quickly determines Mark doesn't have what it takes to get the wrestling team where it needs to be, so he flies in Mark's older brother Dave to take over the leadership of Team Foxcatcher.
While this serves as the basic synopsis for the film's plot, thematically the film is concerned with the aforementioned decline of American wealth. In fact, particularly in the beginning of the film, the symbolism of the heavy hanging ghost of a "once great" America is practically hammered into the head of the audience with a thousand pounds of dynamite. Words like "patriotism", "duty", and "country" are bandied about regularly while imagery like of the American flag and George Washington seem to be literally lurking around every corner. In another scene, Du Pont and Mark Schultz have an intense conversation about the decline of the American spirit and the lack of any real role models for American youth. These thematic concerns are not uninteresting, but they are handled so bluntly as to be made a bit dull, leaving the audience no room to discover the film's thoughts for themselves. Foxcatcher is much stronger however when it is exploring the interpersonal relationships of the film's characters. Both John Du Pont and Mark Schultz have psychological complexes in common when it comes to living in the shadows of other family members. For John, the subject of his torture is his permanently discontent mother, whose upper class and blueblood background disdains the very thought of a sport as viscerally unsophisticated as wrestling. Mark on the other hand is desperate to get out of the legacy of his caring older brother Dave, who had to act as his de facto father and mentor growing up due to absentee parenting. The perverted aspect of their shared psychosis is that it is exactly because of their similarity that John is able to so fully destroy Mark's confidence when the friendship goes sour. By the time Dave arrives, the damage is done, and the irreversible wedge between Mark and John only grows. Eventually, Dave's obvious resentment towards John for his utter destruction of Mark's confidence becomes an issue as well, as the emotionally unstable John can only stand Dave's quiet hatred for so long before the emotionally unstable millionaire finally snaps, ending in tragic consequences. Miller directs in a classically austere style full of many wide shots, quiet close-ups, and a limited and subtle use of music. His choices are hard to argue with, as the give the film an undeniable sense of gravitas, but like Miller's previous two films, the result is a film that is so impersonal and staunchly objective as to be a bit alienating. Like some pieces of classical music, the film feels like art that was made to appreciate its own genius, leaving the audience to nod in silent agreement. It's good, you know it's good, and so does everyone else in the room, but something about just doesn't totally click.
One aspect of the film that is beyond reproach though is the film's performances. All three of the main actors, Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo give some of the best, if not the best, performances of their careers. Carell, prominently known as a comedian up to this point, at first comes across as if he's trying a bit too hard, but as the character of John Du Pont is slowly revealed to us, his choices become increasingly impressive and convincing. Tatum is the emotional heart of the film and delves into inner psychological performances that he hasn't even hinted at in his past work. Finally, Ruffalo, who hasn't been mentioned as frequently in the press, actually may deliver the most impressive performance of the three. As a concerned older brother with a family of his own, Ruffalo doesn't get the more emotionally showy scenes that his fellow thespians do, but between the three characters, his is most believable and effective. Foxcatcher is an undeniably a good movie. It has an intriguing story, terrific acting, and impressive craftsmanship. However, what it has in intelligence and grace it lacks in heart, and its insistence on austerity and objectivity serves to limit the audiences connection to the film, even as it avoids countless other pitfalls. Foxcatcher is a film that is impossible not to appreciate, but difficult to love.
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A film fanatic at a very young age, starting with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies and gradually moving up to more sophisticated fare, at around the age of ten he became inexplicably obsessed with all things Oscar. With the incredibly trivial power of being able to chronologically name every Best Picture winner from memory, his lifelong goal is to see every Oscar nominated film, in every major category, in the history of the Academy Awards.