Tuesday, December 16, 2014
"Foxcatcher" is a heartfelt, intelligent, deadly serious drama based on a real murder case in which a wealthy patron hired two wrestler brothers, tried to seduce and control one of them, and ended up murdering the other. Every frame of it is sincere. As cowritten by E. Max Frye ("Something Wild") and Dan Futterman ("Capote") and directed by Bennett Miller ("Capote," "Moneyball"), it's also a throwback to a '70s style of commercial filmmaking. Much of it unfolds in long takes, in medium or long distance shots that draw attention to the environment around the characters, and there is minimal dramatic assistance (or intrusion) by music. Parts of it evoke films by the late Alan J. Pakula ("All the President's Men," "The Parallax View," "Comes a Horseman"), a master of understatement.
And yet in the end "Foxcatcher" proves impossible to embrace because of fundamental miscalculations in performance, direction and makeup, along with a certain clumsiness in the way that it tries to make some kind of grand statement about American values, or the lack thereof. If I had to make a list of movies I'm saddest about not having liked, this would rank near the top.
Its heart is a story of brotherly love and rivalry that turns sour, sordid, and ultimately tragic. Olympic wrestlers Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) have a very deep bond, which we later discover was rooted in shared childhood trauma. They didn't just grow up together, they raised each other, with Dave serving as a surrogate father to Mark. When the story begins, Mark is already withering in his brother's shadow. Both won Olympic wrestling medals, but Dave is the more likable and functional of the two. He's made a career as a coach and settled down to raise a family. Mark is single, seemingly has no friends and no sex drive, and spends his free time in monklike solitude, eating Ramen noodles in his bachelor pad. The way Channing Tatum plays him (and in some cases regrettably overplays him) he's a cartoon caveman with a jutted-out chin, trundling around in sweats.
Then billionaire John Eleuthère du Pont (Steve Carell) calls asking Mark to come out to Foxcatcher, his 800-acre Pennsylvania horse farm, and help him create a world-class training facility that'll prepare the U.S. Olympic team for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Mark hops into a helicopter and quickly succumbs to the promise of lavish living quarters and a steady check. (In one of the film's many agonizingly true observations of how the rich exploit class-based ignorance, John asks Mark to name his price, Mark names an amount that John could probably fish from couch cushions, and John says yes as if bestowing a great favor.)