Wednesday, April 1, 2015


It's difficult to find the right words to describe the odd swath John du Pont cuts through 2014's based on a true story FOXCATCHER.  As played by Steve Carrell, the reclusive heir to an unimaginable fortune often appears as if frozen in rigor mortis.  Perhaps merely staring into some unseen landscape - a pretty damned barren one at that.  One never knows how to approach such an individual, how to speak to them, how to move about near their space.  I've worked with a few like this.  It's as if trying to converse with some discomforting artifact from centuries ago.

In my readings I discovered that director Bennett Miller instructed Carrell, best known for his comedic turns, to resist joking with fellow actors between takes.  Carrell was also discouraged from socializing with the cast or crew, leading them to feel quite unsure around him.  You might call this some sort of Method acting, and it works.  Carrell, in all his minimalism, creates one of the coldest, enigmatic, and creepy figures I've seen in cinema. 

John du Pont arranges for Olympic gold-medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to meet him at his estate, located within the sprawling Foxcatcher compound in Pennsylvania, where du Pont's mother (Vanessa Redgrave) continues a long tradition of breeding horses.  Du Pont does not share his mother's passion, but rather (much to her disdain) has an aggressive interest in professional wrestling.  He has opened a private facility in which his team can train for international contests and eventually the Olympics.  Mark and his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic champion, represent to du Pont the best chance to capture the gold at the Seoul games in 1988.  During their first meeting, despite some palpable awkwardness, du Pont and Mark will learn of their similar desire to recapture not only a medal, but to encourage other athletes and instill a sense of national pride within a country they feel has lost its way.  Du Pont entices the young man to live on site and work in his facility as he prepares for the Games.

Dave does not join his brother at Foxcatcher as he refuses to uproot his family.  The older brother has a very strong bond with Mark, and several scenes very effectively convey his mentorship, his patience.  The backstory between the Schultzes almost announces itself; that's how strong these actors are (and props to E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's screenplay). Dave is a warm, encouraging, empathetic soul who is as driven as his brother but never at the expense of his family life.  Mark is a confused, frustrated young man who at times seems almost cognitively challenged.  Certainly a social misfit, and who finds in the likewise du Pont a paternalistic connection.  Also a friendship, despite the older man's bizarre, unpredictable, and enigmatic manner.  They (and the viewer, upon reflection) will find they have more in common than first realized.

Things go well for a time, but as the film's relentlessly chilly atmosphere and portent shroud around you like some sinister fog, you realize that unfortunate events are inevitable.  The foreshadowing throughout the movie is far from subtle but never crass or insulting.   If you've read the sad story, you'll be aware that one of the three men will fall to the bullets of one of the others.

FOXCATCHER is a fascinating film.  A character examination that probes deeper than with which many viewers will be comfortable.  Miller - whose masterful, evocative direction again impresses after CAPOTE and MONEYBALL - creates a moody, vivid palate of uneasiness, of sociopathy and its utter destruction.  His use of locations and silences (though Rob Simonsen's score is also effective) are brilliance.  Carrell seemingly does very little but conveys a most disturbing portrayal.  His work here is exemplary (as is that of his co-stars, perhaps career bests).  Was John du Pont insane? Was he cunningly aware of the discomfort he caused in others? Was he a calculating individual who strung the younger Schultz along with ersatz speeches about breaking away, of pulling out from under the shadow of his brother's success? Was there a real motive at work?

John du Pont espouses his patriotism throughout the movie.  Early on, he leads Mark through nearby Valley Forge and explains how thousands lost their lives on those grounds for this great country, for a way of life.  The more you ponder what the du Pont family actually contributed to the world, the more hollow and inappropriate these words ring.  At Foxcatcher, one more was to die for reasons far from anything penned by the Founding Fathers.
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