Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: "Foxcatcher" is a Dark Look at the American Dream, Greed and Family

Left to right: Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo
There have been few topics that have had as conflicting of a cinematic representation as that of American patriotism. For all of the freedoms that are given, there's those that abuse the power in favor of something more dastardly and disturbing. In director Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, he doesn't so much destroy the myth surrounding patriotism as he explores its impact on our relationships, whether that be family or teammates. The story of Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is a tragic one and the preceding text stating its factual history only makes it more bleak. As a whole, it is the perfect embodiment of a troubled culture and what happens when there isn't much to live for.

The central focus of the story revolves around John Du Pont (Steve Carell) and Mark. After doing exceptional work in the 1984 Olympics, Mark is reduced to giving lectures at elementary schools about what America means. He has to sell his career in order to survive. He doesn't have the capabilities to do anything else, which makes the introduction of John all the more tragic. He comes like a man desperately trying to feed off of desperation by using patriotism. He wants the Schultz brothers to come to his Foxcatcher Ranch and train. Along with a conflicting relationship with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), John slowly becomes more unruly as John becomes more downtrodden. In the end, the adventure dovetails into tragedy and serves more as a metaphor for how big business screws over the little man.

Along with beautiful, eerie cinematography, the story plays out in a cold, removed landscape. It feels as ignored as its characters, who are having trouble cooperating with each other. What grounds the entire film is a great performance by Tatum, whose lumbering small-minded character goes through a fascinating transition from confident to destructive in nuanced fashion. Egging him on is the unassuming brilliance of Carell, who pretty much holds in all of his emotions, looking to live vicariously through John in order to appease his mother. It is questionable if he even cares about sports. What is known is that he has a tortured past. Almost everyone in the film has trouble in this way. Still, with the extrovert colliding with the introvert with power, things become a cavalcade of madness and desperation in ways that are compelling though sometimes unsatisfying.

The film works as more than a sports film. It serves as a look at dysfunctional families, whether it be that of a family, surrogate parents or a team of loyal wrestlers. Every dynamic possible is explored in the film with the most dangerous figure (the surrogate father: John) being the one with power. He is misunderstood, but nobody wants to disrupt his happiness in fear of something worse. He believes in the American Dream, as long as he gets his cut. Everyone else literally lives in his world, having to please by winning him medals and stroking his ego. As bad as America is to Mark at the start of the film, John is leagues worse. He doesn't leave Mark to wallow in irrelevance. He wants the tired, exhausted man to push harder and destroy his only resource (his body) for more glory. There's no sympathy at all in their relationship.

Foxcatcher is a film that may feel cold and bleak, but has a profound look at a little known part of American history. It also speaks volumes of how veteran athletes are treated after their expiration date. While the film may have trouble completing its relevance in the third act, all of its points have been made and it turns out that hell is in a remote location surrounded by woods. It is a nightmare that frankly continues to thrive and while few are likely as scary as John, they definitely borrow pages from his greediness. He fabricates his truth to impress everyone but those that need it the most. For what it's worth, Foxcatcher is a film that explores family, patriotism and corporations in equal strives and with excellent precision that makes it profound the more disturbing that it gets.

Steve Carell
There was a point where I assumed that this film would be the front runner for Best Picture. Admittedly, that was a time before I had seen the film and the Oscars narrative had yet to take shape. I borrowed opinions from Cannes, which awarded it nicely. I even took Miller's success rate with the Oscars a little too literally. While this isn't Capote great, it still manages to feel relevant as it fades into the background of the Oscar race. Where Steve Carell once seemed like a front runner, he is now overshadowed by Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything (and for good reason). In fact, I don't exactly know what the film is going to win.

I just know that the film deserves plenty of recognition. Thankfully, it did show up yesterday on the Golden Globe Awards sheet a few times. I think it deserves everything that it was nominated for. In fact, I would even argue that the sound design is rather excellent here. Few films have incorporated silence so wonderfully as it is here. Still, my only complaint is that for the Best Supporting Actor nomination, I found Channing Tatum to be more deserving of a nomination than Mark Ruffalo. While he delivers a good performance, Tatum is a knockout in this film in ways that were unexpected. I am not entirely sure why he is the odd man out right now.

Still, I am glad to know that Foxcatcher is a really good film and is still in the Oscar race. I do admit that maybe I overreacted by calling it the Best Picture front runner. However, with a cast so strong and a story so complex, there's little to hate about the film. It may be a little too dark for the Academy, but I do find that it is worthy of more recognition. I am just not sure in what fields it will likely have the biggest shine.

1 comment:

  1. Though it's cold, dark and as chilly as the winter air, the performances are so fantastic that it's nearly impossible to look away from the screen. Even if it is incredibly unsettling. Good review Thomas.