Foxcatcher movie review: the rich are different

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Foxcatcher green light

A pensive and unsettling film that defies genre description and keeps you wondering just what the heck sort of film you’re watching.
I’m “biast” (pro): have really liked Bennett Miller’s other films

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

If you don’t already know the real-life story of millionaire John du Pont and Olympic wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz, try to avoid learning about it before you see Foxcatcher. Because Bennett Miller has crafted a pensive and unsettling film that defies genre description and keeps you wondering — in a way that is intellectually thrilling yet also dolefully introspective in a way American movies hardly ever are — just what the heck sort of film you’re watching. Foxcatcher is a challenge to a movie ecosystem that, even on the arthouse end of the spectrum, caters to a lack of patience for mood or meandering.

It’s clear that something is just not right about du Pont (Steve Carell: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues) from the moment Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum: Jupiter Ascending, The Book of Life) meets him. Du Pont is mysterious and imperious… and maybe a little stalkerish, or is that only our imagination? The strange rich man who speaks of usually passionate subjects — patriotism; honor — with cold distance just wants to support the athlete as he trains for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, in the hopes that he will win gold again, as he did in 1984 in Los Angeles. (If only the U.S. treated its Olympic hopefuls with help on a national level, the way the Soviets did, instead of leaving them to fend for themselves. It’s a disgrace! And it is up to du Pont to rectify this.) The solid, stolid Schultz doesn’t have much imagination, however, and perhaps du Pont’s almost inhuman awkwardness feels like a match for his own. In any case, though we might hear alarm bells, Schultz readily accepts du Pont’s offer and moves onto the sprawling du Pont estate to begin training.

After first showing us the painful smallness of Schultz’s life post-Olympic glory — his tiny, drab apartment; the stiff talks with schoolkids about the Games and the gold — Miller (Moneyball, Capote) now goes on to layer on quiet menace after quiet menace as the relationship between du Pont and Schultz grows, and grows weird. Or are we being unfair to du Pont? We can see that his life of privilege is also one of exclusion and isolation and loneliness. Is it possible that the vaguely homoerotic overtones of du Pont’s practice wrestling with Schultz is a result of this being the only physical human contact du Pont gets? If for nothing else, Foxcatcher is worth seeing for its strange portrait of a strange friendship in which neither party appears capable of understanding his own feelings. Much has been made of Carell’s prosthetic nose rendering him almost unrecognizable here, but it seems to me that the actor has contorted himself so much — from his body language to his tone of voice — that he would be nearly unrecognizable, and disturbingly so, even without the nose. And while I have never been a fan of Tatum’s, he’s quite effective here as a man whose only means of expression appears to be wrestling.

That is most obvious when Schultz is interacting with his brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo: Begin Again, Now You See Me), also an Olympic medallist and now a full-time coach. The actually gregarious Dave is married with young kids; his life is a tidy happy package, a marked contrast to Mark’s solitary drifting. (Mark is much more comfortable “hugging” his brother in a wrestling workout than actually engaging with Dave’s cheerful request to “gimme a hug.”) And when Dave gets sucked into the du Pont sphere, things get even odder: du Pont is clearly uncomfortably simply watching Dave rasslin’ with his little kids. Is it a reminder of everything that du Pont does not have?

Things that would be humorous in another film — like how du Pont fancies himself “the Golden Eagle of America” — here just seem sad and small. So is Foxcatcher a tragedy? Yes. And a thriller, of sorts. And an attempt to figure out what the du Pont’s relationship with the Schultzes was all about. Because it’s famous — infamous, more like — not because it was weird but because of how it ended. We still can’t really know what was really going on — probably they didn’t really know, either — only make stabs of guesses at sometimes unfathomable human motives. By the end of Foxcatcher, we kinda still don’t know what sort of movie we’re watching. That is a disconcerting place for a film to get to.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Foxcatcher for its representation of girls and women.

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