Sunday, December 7, 2014

Movie Review: "Foxcatcher"

This movie was c-r-e-e-p-y...

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) was a gold medal winner in wrestling at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, alongside his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). A few years after his Olympic victory, Mark is broke, living in Dave's shadow, and hoping desperately for another shot at glory in the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

One day Mark is summoned to Foxcatcher, the Pennsylvania estate of John E. du Pont (Steve Carell, looking a little like a younger version of The Simpsons' Mr. Burns). John, it turns out, is a huge fan of wrestling, and wants to help train Mark for the world championships, which will give him a leg up toward the Olympic trials. He offers to pay Mark whatever salary he'd like, and house him at Foxcatcher, and all he wants is Mark's total allegiance—and the opportunity to be a coach and mentor. (Of course, you have to wonder whether the frequent glimpses of shirtless and singlet-clad Mark were part of the fringe benefits John had in mind.)

John initially tries to get Dave to join the Foxcatcher team, but he refuses, so John uses this to push the brothers apart, and swoops into an emotionally unstable Mark's life just when he needs a father/brother figure most. But after a hard-fought victory, and an introduction to two of John's favorite vices—cocaine and alcohol—their relationship starts to sour. When Dave finally does arrive (courtesy of an offer he can't refuse), he finds Mark desperate to escape John's clutches, and John desperate for credibility as a leader of men, and desperate for an Olympic winner.

Foxcatcher is based on a true story, but I won't spoil one of the key plot points (which I didn't know about until I read a magazine article about the story behind the movie), as the element of surprise is pretty powerful. (If you know what happens it doesn't ruin the movie, but it dulls the suspense a little.) Suffice it to say, however, that the movie just has this pervasively ominous feel throughout, partially from the muted tones in which the film was shot, to the chilly distance which resides between many of the characters.

Carell once again shows off that he is a tremendously talented and versatile actor. Sure, the prosthetics help, but he speaks in a stilted, awkward tone, and his mannerisms make you wonder if you should feel sorry for him or just steer clear of him. (The scene in which he first interacts with Mark almost felt as if he were a stranger offering Mark candy from his car window.) I hope that with this performance, Carell gets more of the respect he deserves beyond the comedy he has excelled at.

Tatum is brooding, shuffling, and insecure, and he imbues Mark with a borderline psychological instability and a simmering rage just beneath his surface. His character doesn't talk much, but there is hurt and anger in his performance. Ruffalo doesn't have as large of a role, but he's quite good as the brother trying to navigate the odd tension between Mark and John, and trying to determine whether the deal he's been offered is too good to be true. One scene in which he is asked to speak about John for a documentary he is filming about himself stood out particularly.

The performances in Foxcatcher are strong, but the movie doesn't rise to meet them. It's almost as if director Bennett Miller, in trying to convey the empty sterility of John's life and the bleakness of the situation the Schultzes find themselves in, doesn't allow the movie to have a great deal of passion, and the pacing is slow. It's a shame, because all of the elements are there for a strong film.

Carell and Ruffalo have been mentioned as potential Oscar nominees, and it will be interesting to see whether Carell is able to succeed in an area that other comedians—Jim Carrey and Steve Martin in particular—have not.

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