Based on a True Story Drama

A Suplex of a Film Review: Foxcatcher

November 28, 2014Ben Mk


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Brothers in arms...

With his previous film, the critically-lauded Moneyball, director Bennett Miller brought us the inspirational true story Billy Beane, the former pro ballplayer whose novel approach to management revolutionized the sport. And for his followup, Miller returns to the sports arena — only this time, the results are markedly darker. Drawing from the true-crime genre of his debut feature, Capote, Foxcatcher is a brooding drama that focuses on Olympic wrestlers Dave and Mark Schultz, their twisted relationship with billionaire John du Pont and the sudden act of violence that would see their names forever intertwined.

   

When we first meet him, 27-year-old Mark (Channing Tatum) is frustrated and tired of living in the shadow of his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). It's been nearly three years since the pair won gold for the US at the '84 Olympics, and though Mark aspires to a repeat performance at the upcoming games in Seoul, he can feel his chances slipping away by the minute. Dave, on the other hand, seems content with life just the way it is, alternating between being a patient training partner to his brother and an attentive husband and father to wife Nancy (Sienna Miller, in a peripheral role) and their two kids.

Enter John du Pont (Steve Carell), self-proclaimed patriot, military enthusiast and heir to the du Pont fortune. His family's sprawling Pennsylvania estate, Foxcatcher Farm, has had a long-standing reputation for breeding champion thoroughbreds; but John is intent on using it to breed Olympic champions instead. Having built a state-of-the-art training facility on its grounds, he summons Mark there to present him with an irresistible proposition: he will provide Mark with the financial sponsorship he so desperately needs, if, in turn, Mark will work with him to forge the next gold-winning American Olympic wrestling team, by helping to recruit and train other dedicated athletes.

Thinking he's finally found his golden ticket, Mark is quick to pack up and join "Team Foxcatcher". Dave, however, is increasingly skeptical of John's underlying motivations. And rightfully so: for neither of them realize just how dangerous and deluded Mark's new benefactor truly is — that this "leader or men", as John refers to himself as, is as sociopathic as he is patriotic, and that there's no telling what he's capable of.

The film's story spans nearly a decade, from 1987 to 1996, culminating in the senseless tragedy that sent shockwaves rippling through the nation. But even if you're already familiar with the real-life account, nothing can prepare you for how it unfolds on-screen.

Just as Moneyball wasn't just about the sport of baseball per say, viewers should know that this isn't your conventional sports drama. In fact, it's the furthest thing from. Instead, Foxcatcher is all about the intensity and the emotions that drive Mark, Dave and John. To this end, Miller keeps the narrative sparse — with many a scene that simply lingers on characters' expressions — zeroing in on the more introspective moments of the story and winding the human drama tightly around the three lead performances. Of course, when things snap, the results are explosive.

Ruffalo's quietly understated portrayal grounds the film, but even though he's the most consummate dramatic actor of the three, it's Tatum and Carell — two actors better known for their comedic roles — whose performances will leave audiences slack-jawed. Juxtapositioning childlike naivety with volatile rage, this is unquestionably Tatum's most emotionally vulnerable role to date; while Carell's turn as a man unhinged, emotionally-stunted and utterly lacking in empathy will chill moviegoers to their bones. In addition, all three actors wear facial prosthetics to bring their appearances more in-line with their namesakes; and while it's initially jarring, it's a testament to the caliber of their talent that you barely notice it after a while.

The Bottom Line There's a lot going on beneath the surface in Foxcatcher, much more than you would expect to find in your typical sports drama or true-crime thriller. It's about the struggle for power and the bond between brothers; and it's about dreams — how they live and how they die. Powered by a triumvirate of heavy-hitting performances from Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Steve Carell, director Bennett Miller's third feature film is, at its core, a potent character study. Surely if filmmaking were an Olympic sport, it would deserve a gold medal. Instead, Miller and company may just have to settle for an Oscar statuette.  Ben Mk





* Reviewer's note: Portions of this film review were adapted from my TIFF review of the film, published on September 9th, 2014.




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