MOVIE REVIEW: Foxcatcher




Without fail, every single year, I seem to find an Oscar contender and Oscar hopeful that is widely heralded and loved by a vast majority of the big wig critics that ends up not measuring up in my eyes.  There is always at least one standout film (or more) that I'm going to label as "overrated" and wonder what all the fuss is about.  Last year, "Inside Llewyn Davis" from the Coen brothers, "Nebraska" from Alexander Payne, and David O. Russell's "American Hustle" were those films for me.  I couldn't have been far off because none of them won a single Oscar.

This year, as of late November, in this writer's opinion, that movie is going to be "Foxcatcher," the new true crime drama from "Moneyball" and "Capote" director Bennett Miller.  It has been slowing gaining steam and attention ever since its world premiere in competition for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this past summer.  Miller himself won the Best Director prize at Cannes and "Foxcatcher" has since been playing to packed houses on the fall film festival circuit through Toronto, Telluride, London, and New York.  The film sits at an 85% "Certified Fresh" plateau on Rotten Tomatoes with four and five-star reviews pouring in left and right.  

"Foxcatcher" was a passion project for Miller that he immersed himself into for over two years since 2012.  He spent the better part of 2013 and 2014 solely editing this very meticulous film.  What results, in my opinion, is a flawed sculpture where the artist spent so much time whittling over the immensity of the project and its details that he lost sight what the piece represented.  Without a doubt, the effort and the talent is there in front of and behind the camera, but, somewhere, this film drowned itself out and lost the core of what really mattered.

The film tells the true story of the fractured partnership between two athletic brothers and their new wealthy benefactor and coach.  Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum play Dave and Mark Schultz, two California-born 1984 Olympic gold medalists and legendary brothers in the sport of freestyle wrestling.  We enter in 1987 and follow Mark (Tatum), the little and lonely brother of the two, as he begins to peek around the long shadow cast by his immensely more popular brother Dave (Ruffalo).  In an effort to branch out and train on his own before the 1987 World Championships, Mark is courted to join Team Foxcatcher, a new dedicated wrestling training center located on the grounds of the famed Du Pont family in eastern Pennsylvania.  This is the same family renowned for their successful chemical company and champion race horses.  

Eccentric millionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), the heir to the Du Pont empire, started Team Foxcatcher to support his own love and respect for wrestling.  To him, the sport of wrestling can give America hope and remind the world of America's fight, glory, greatness, and dominance.  John inserts himself as Mark's new mentor and coach and becomes enamored with the quest for success.  In the absence of his older brother’s wisdom, Mark drinks the decadent attention in and falls far down the proverbial rabbit hole.  He loses sight of what’s good for him and his focus.  After a falling out between John and Mark, John overlooks Mark and convinces Dave to uproot his family and join Team Foxcatcher as well, in preparation for the 1998 Olympics in Seoul.  The new boundaries and proximity between the three men creates several layers of tension that fuel the film’s emotion and collision.

What can’t be faulted about “Foxcatcher” is the acting.  All three leads step far out of their usual comfort zones and compel themselves to take on and deliver bold and strong performances.  This is easily the best dramatic work yet from Channing Tatum, exhibiting raw emotion that lurks under a hunched frame of broad shoulders, cauliflower ear, and a furrowed brow.  Ruffalo is a sterling presence as the voice of reason and the one pure, guiding soul.  The unspoken brotherly love and competitive support between Tatum and Ruffalo is very well done and the two actors perfectly score the physicality to portray champion athletes.  Neither of them employed stunt doubles on the mats and both did their homework to look their parts; mannerisms, gait, and all.  This was solid work.

The performance of revelation that everyone is already talking about is Steve Carell as John du Pont.  Mouth-breathing all the way and scowling under transformative makeup, Carell encapsulated all of the necessary oddity, obsession, and paranoia to play this role.  This couldn’t be more opposite to the Brick Tamlands and Maxwell Smarts on his resume.  As a challenge to the norm, this performance for him is on the level of Robin Williams going dark in “One Hour Photo.”  Carell scales the personality back and makes each of his cryptic words strike with formality and sharpness.  The “revelation” tag is richly appropriate and an Oscar nomination is a near-guarantee with Carell’s popularity.

Somewhere, the scrupulous nature of the narrative and its delivery to tell this true crime story misses the mark and gets lost in all of the tinkering from Bennett Miller.  He’s a brilliant filmmaker, but he’s trying too hard and the potential of it all feels wasted.  Yes, the three leads are more than enough to dominate an Oscar contender, but the notable acting stops there.  Sienna Miller has a throwaway part as Dave’s wife and is given next to nothing to do, especially compared to her other American wife role in the upcoming “American Sniper.”  The same can be said for the great Vanessa Redgrave playing Du Pont’s mother.  She is an untapped resource saddled with a glorified cameo of little consequence. 

Even the technical and artistic aspects of the film come off as weak and unimpressive.  The set design and costumes deserve credit, but the rest is forgettable.  Cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Zero Dark Thirty” and “Killing Them Softly”) gives Miller his wide shots and wrestling footage, but it doesn’t stand out.  The same goes for a whisperingly weak musical score from Rob Simonsen (“The Way Way Back” and “The Spectacular Now”).  A true Oscar contender needs, and even demands, extra heft from technical precision and strong artistry.  Those elements here in “Foxcatcher” cannot elevate that prestige.

What seems to have been shaved, cut, and honed away is this story’s bite, rawness, and suspense.  Bennett Miller collaborated on “Foxcatcher” with his “Capote” screenwriter Dan Futterman and newcomer E. Max Frye.  All of the polishing and shaping has smoothed too many edges and the result is flat, non-compelling, and (dare I say it) boring.  For me, “Moneyball” was an equally overrated Oscar contender three years ago that was aided greatly by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s sizzling way with words.  Futterman and Frye don’t come close to that.

Also, as with most true stories, you can’t help but do some homework to learn more.  Two athletic legends, like the Schultz brothers, who are larger than life in their sport seem reduced to lumbering apes in too many scenes.  A maddeningly caustic millionaire appears tamed down to idle staring and ominous standing compared to the real life subject.  When those forces collide, there are not enough sparks and repercussions.  “Foxcatcher” had the potential to hit harder, chill the spine colder, and resonate deeper, but fails to do so.  Even the big messages that make up the life lessons utilized by this website’s style of reviews don’t pack much punch.

LESSON #1: FALSE FATHER FIGURES, FALSE FRIENDS, AND FALSE COACHING—The climb for greatness that we observe through Mark exposes the three levels of false influences outlined by this lesson.  His brother Dave can’t be his father and his brother at the same time, so Mark gravitates towards John until he discards him.  He feels like he’s made a friend, but is used as a pawn with little in return for his efforts.  The mantras and rhetoric of Du Pont are absorbed as life-changing coaching and encouragement before money, ambition, and status cloud their worth and reveal their hollowness.  Mark and all involved are better off staying true to themselves.

LESSON #2: A WARPED AMERICAN PATRIOTISM—One big character trait of John E. du Pont that is mildly touched upon is his level of American patriotism.  He knew his history, knew his guns, and took pride in his family’s legacy and property being symbolically near Valley Forge.  John considered himself a patriot and a leader for the work he was doing with the national wrestling team.  His credo was “champions in sport and winners in life” and felt he was giving lesser people dreams and hope.  He was giving himself too much credit and let his monetary status do the talking, which brings us to Lesson #3.

LESSON #3: BUYING SUCCESS AND INFLUENCE THROUGH WEALTH—Thanks to his skewed view of his place and mission, Du Pont threw his money around knowing he could buy favor of lesser people.  He thought that made him honorable and a winner.  The virtue of athletics is stronger than money and riches.  The same goes for the bonds of brothers.  You might be able to buy winners and buy success in some competitions, but there is no honor, patriotism, or virtue in that.  As aforementioned, these three life lessons should ring louder and sting harder, but they really don’t.