Monday 18 July 2016

Movie Review: Foxcatcher (2014)

A somber drama about wrestling and egomania, Foxcatcher is a quietly powerful examination of human relationships. The story of one rich man's need to be admired on his own terms is unsettling in its normalcy, and the film enjoys three excellent central performances.

It's 1987, and brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), both Olympic wrestling gold medalists, are training for the upcoming world championships and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Having endured a difficult upbringing in a broken household, the brothers have a tight relationship, with the older Dave acting as a mentor and inspiration to the younger, moodier Mark. Dave is now settled and raising a family with wife Nancy (Sienna Miller); Mark remains a loner.

Out of the blue, Mark is contacted by billionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), who offers an annual salary and training facilities as part of Team Foxcatcher at his expansive estate in Pennsylvania. John is single and living under the shadow of his mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave). He claims to be a patriot and wrestling fan, and imagines himself as a coach and a mentor, wanting to nurture and celebrate America's heroes. Mark accepts the offer and relocates to the du Pont estate for training with other wrestlers. Dave initially refuses a similar offer, not wanting to disrupt his family. With continued success in the wrestling ring, a bond develops between John and Mark, but gradually John's increasingly bizarre behaviour begins to cause tension between the brothers.

Directed by Bennett Miller and based on real events, Foxcatcher is a disconcerting story about the insidious forces that lurk within a damaged psyche. Filled with pregnant pauses, quiet moments and awkward interactions, the film burrows into the soul of three men and finds plenty of opportunities for victimization. Foxcatcher never shouts its intentions; Miller allows the characters to speak for themselves through often subdued actions, and creates remarkable heights of drama from nothing but stares and silence.

The triangular relationship between the two wrestlers and the billionaire heir is at the centre of the film. John du Pont is severely damaged, but his scars are not on the surface. A man who owns everything but is yet exceedingly needy, his faults emerge gradually like an invisible vaporous poison seeping slowly and infecting his surroundings. Once Mark understands that John is not a well man, he is in too deep, entangled in a soul-destroying relationship. Dave is more settled, more secure and therefore more able to resist John's money and superficial pablum about patriotism. But driven at least partially by the need to help his brother, even Dave is not fully immune and he is also sucked into John's orbit.

The men are individually fascinating. Drawn together, they create a new, volatile dynamic, their co-dependencies built on an unstable mixture of deep family bonds, exceptionally easy money and unpredictable narcissism.

Miller demonstrates noteworthy control over the material and uses an economy of words and scenes to build complexity. The causes of John's character issues are dealt with in a few effective strokes featuring his mother and the family background. One devastating sequence has John pathetically trying to convince himself and the unimpressed, wheelchair-constrained Jean that he is indeed a coach. In another exceedingly uncomfortable interlude, John celebrates with the wrestlers by clumsily attempting to joke-wrestle with them, the privileged loner trying in vain to be one of the guys.

Foxcatcher needed three exceptional performances to thrive, and Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum deliver. Carell is a revelation, leaving far behind his comic persona and finding a dangerous place for John, where reality slowly detaches and drifts away from a seemingly normal mind. Ruffalo and Tatum create a winning pair of brothers, their relationship filled with a mosaic of tension, mutual admiration and layered dependencies.

Foxcatcher is a unique and captivating achievement, a stunning and unforgettable story told with muted authority.

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