Foxcatcher – A Review

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This year I was finally able to make it to the Film Columbia Festival; every year I have the best of intentions to go and every year my plans somehow get derailed. This year, I put the event on my calendar as soon as the dates were announced and purchased a membership so I would have early access to tickets. This is a small and popular film festival about 45 minutes away from me and tickets often sell out before they even go on sale to the general public. Work obligations meant that I couldn’t take in the full slate of festival programming; I’d be limited to checking out only the films that were offered in the evening or on the weekend. That was fine with me, since I had predicted that most of the potential Oscar films would generally be in these timeslots. When my member pre-sale occurred, the first film that I secured tickets to was Foxcatcher. I had been looking forward to that film from the first trailer that I saw and had hoped it would be on the programming slate. I didn’t care that I would be spending almost as much time in the car that I would in the theater; I was thrilled to have the chance to see the film several months before it rolled out. The buzz from the bigger festivals was exceedingly positive and I always love when comedians play serious roles successfully, so my expectations were very high as I went into the screening.

Unfortunately, there was a gulf between my preconceived notions of what Foxcatcher was going to be and what it actually was; I had to reflect on the film for a while after I saw it to determine what I ultimately thought of it. I didn’t want its failure to deliver what I had anticipated to unfairly tarnish my evaluation of the film. Once my expectations were calibrated and I examined the film that it was rather than the film I had hoped it would be, I can’t deny that Foxcatcher is an excellent film. It may not have been paced quite how I expected and my confusion about the facts of the true story may have initially thrown me off, but Foxcatcher is a compelling story that features compelling  performances from its talented cast. Of all the films that I saw at Film Columbia, Foxcatcher is the one that has stuck with me the most and that I continue to think about. It is a chilling story about power, money, familial competition, loneliness, delusion, and violence that I have no doubt will be nominated for several accolades come award season.

Foxcatcher is based on the true story of two brothers – Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) Schultz – who both won Olympic gold in the 1984 Olympics. Despite that achievement, when the movie begins Mark is clearly struggling; he lives in a dumpy apartment, subsists on ramen noodles and eeks out money from speaking to school children about his experiences in the Olympics while he trains for competition in the ’88 games. Dave, the more affable of the two brothers, is doing slightly better – he has a family and is employed as a wrestling coach. Mark loves his brother, but also resents his inability to climb out of his brother’s shadow. When Mark receives a call from the wealthy John E. du Pont (Steve Carell) – the eccentric heir of the du Pont chemical fortune – with the offer of financing Mark’s training and building a wrestling team, he jumps at the chance to carve out his own identity.

And that’s when things get uncomfortable.

John du Pont’s main credentials for being a wrestling coach is that he thinks he is a wrestling coach and has the money to make people go along with that. He views the wrestlers as akin to the prize horses that his mother owns – possessions that he owns that can be trotted out to make him look important. His increasingly bizarre behavior and delusions of his role in the wrestling school slowly simmer under the surface until they finally reach their breaking point. Mark is willing to play along for a while, but becomes increasingly uneasy with the arrangement, especially when he learns what happens when you fall out of favor with du Pont. Foxcatcher is a creepy, slow-burning psychological thriller; even if you know how this all plays out, it is still a fascinating story to watch unfold.

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Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo all give perhaps the finest performances of their careers. Carell is almost unrecognizable as John du Pont; not only is he hidden under a prosthetic nose, but he has completely altered his voice and speaking patterns to better reflect how du Pont spoke. This is a completely serious role for Carell – there are a few moments that are uncomfortably funny – and he knocks it out of the park. Carell completely inhabits du Pont and all of his eccentricities and sadness. It’s hard to think of Steve Carell as being quietly terrifying, but he somehow makes it work. He is perfectly measured and completely loses himself in this role. It’s a performance that will certainly be getting some attention come Oscar season. Ruffalo actually was unrecognizable to me as the eldest Schultz brother; when the credit rolled and I saw Ruffalo’s name, I thought to myself “Mark Ruffalo was in this?” despite the fact that I had been staring at his face for nearly two hours. I knew that the actor playing Dave was vaguely familiar, but I wouldn’t have known it was Ruffalo. His role is less flashy that Tatum’s or Carell’s, but it is just as essential to telling the story. He is the voice of reason in the film; the Schultz brother that is less willing to be impressed and flattered by the attention from du Pont. Ruffalo is quietly fantastic in Foxcatcher and serves as an excellent counterbalance to Tatum’s more naïve Mark. Tatum continues to prove that there is more to him than just a pretty face and I’d say that his work in Foxcatcher is his best performance to date. At this movie’s heart is the tension between the two brothers and Tatum executes that beautifully. All three actors are really stupendous in Foxcatcher; I felt like I was watching real people rather than the actors portraying them. They completely transform themselves into these characters.

My only quibble with the movie was that I found some of the pacing of the film a little too slow for my liking. I don’t mind a slow boil, but this film moves at somewhat of a glacial pace. It’s also a little repetitive and doesn’t dive too deeply below the surface of these characters. The latter isn’t necessarily an issue – you learn enough about these men to understand why they behave the way that they do, but if you are looking for an in-depth examination of the players in this story, you won’t find it here. Foxcatcher doesn’t necessarily feel the need to fill in all the blanks. I may have been less patient with the pacing because I knew the ending of the film – though I had the facts a little jumbled – and was anxious to get to it. These are minor issues with the execution; I was otherwise extremely impressed with the film, once I realized that this was more of a slow burn psychological examination rather than your typical thriller.

Foxcatcher is a movie that is definitely worth seeing; the three central performances are simply fantastic and there is a lot more to the film than the shock of seeing Steve Carell with a giant nose in a serious role. This may be among the best acted films that I’ve seen this year and the direction perfectly creates the tone for this twisted and disturbing tale to quietly unfold. Foxcatcher is a disturbing film, but also one that you cannot look away from. I saw the film nearly a month ago and it has stuck with me like I just saw it yesterday. Foxcatcher is a fascinating portrait of three lives that are forever changed from their interaction. Look for this film to get a lot of attention on critics’ “Best of” lists come the end of the year. It may certainly make mine.

Foxcatcher is currently in limited release and will expand into theaters through January 2015.

 

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