Saturday, November 15, 2014

Of Cauliflower Ears And Ice-Cold Control Freaks

Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz and Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz in Bennett Miller's drama "Foxcatcher".
  Sony Pictures Classics

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, November 15, 2014

Early on in Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher' Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) sits with a fixed scowl burned into his face.  He is isolated with wrestling trophies.  He gives speeches to elementary school kids about his Olympic medal win and hard work.  But there's agitation.  He's not satisfied.  Something eludes him.  "Foxcatcher", based on the true story of billionaire John du Pont, who crosses paths with the hardscrabble working-class Mr. Schultz and his father figure older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), is a cold, blunt, austere film that snares you in its icy grip from start to finish.

Mr. Miller ("Capote", "Moneyball") has clever, ingenious command over this tense, brooding, slow-burn drama about self-fulfillment, approval, class, validation and family ties.  There's no air to breathe in this very dry film, and Steve Carell is creepily effective -- haunting -- as John Du Pont, the Team Foxcatcher wrestling coach, on the Foxcatcher Farm in Pennsylvania belonging to the mother (Vanessa Redgrave) he's estranged from. 

Like Mark, Du Pont is in search of belonging, approval and family.  The young men he coaches are the closest thing to family, yet they're in another universe from him.  Du Pont's most cherished wish is for control.  Money is his means.  He wields cash as a weapon of desperation and disdain, not luxury.  Money buys Du Pont companionship, friends, winners and losers.  His comfort and its trappings is cloaked in bitterness, scorn and contempt.  Du Pont's rejection and alienation is buried in a pit of hate, fear and paranoia. 

Du Pont's control is in orderliness but Mr. Miller directs with such a cool detachment that the atmosphere surrounding his agent of chaos is sparse and more malignant that even Du Pont can handle.  The unspoken truth comes in a scene where Du Pont, or Golden Eagle, as he asks friends to call him, takes over a training session with his Olympic trialists that Dave has so ably orchestrated only moments before.  Du Pont's  takeover coincides with his mother's appearance.  It's as if Du Pont is auditioning one last time for her.  You witness the results.  It's the best scene of the film.

"Foxcatcher" shows layers of influence but never quite lets you into the lives of the characters.  You inhabit their claustrophobia, not much else.  The thick air of expectation and dread linger in every frame.  What happens doesn't quite happen how you think it will.  Then comes a suddenness so casual and pedestrian it startles.  This ratcheting of suspense is an impressive aspect of "Foxcatcher", which doesn't appreciably stretch its legs as a cinematic experience and is stagnant on a storyline basis.  The psychological power, however, is ever-present, lingering like a stubborn fog. 

Bonds don't break easily, and Mr. Miller, who has directed films about dysfunctional families ("Moneyball") and compassionate outsiders ("Capote"), combines both in his new drama.  Mark wants to ascend from Dave's shadow.  Du Pont wants to be free of his mother's power.  An alternative bond.  A different family.  Can they pull away from their respective camps?  There's a riveting electricity to the silences in Mr. Miller's film, and these silences are its greatest strength. 

Though Mr. Carell, unrecognizable here, is stunning, the make-up making him so untraceable is the very thing hampering his acting.  The make-up is too much of a character unto itself.  The prosthetic nose is distracting and awkwardly comedic, getting me thinking about a "Get Smart" prop or Gru in "Despicable Me".  While Mr. Carell is not easy to forget there's enough mileage elsewhere in Mr. Tatum, who at times dials down his physicality to reveal a guarded, wayward and needy boy.  It's a shrewd performance, the film's most intelligent and important one.

Mr. Miller doesn't show wrestlers as gladiators, he displays them as feral beings scraping the sides of a flattened circle of survival, trying not to be exposed on the outside as deeply as they are scarred on the inside.  The wrestler in Mark struggles to stay in control.  The wrestler in Du Pont, a pale, stony figure of percolation and persistence, uses the mind and some homoeroticism that fits perfectly as an undercurrent throughout.  Greig Fraser's cinematography is terrific, the grayish graining palette nearly barren of vivid colors.

Mostly though, you feel the suffocating blue-blood tradition dripping all over Foxcatcher Farm, and sense that Du Pont wants so badly to be a regular guy.  He's in deep pain.  Du Pont doesn't want the poisonous wealth and the nothingness that accompanies it.  He hates the horse statuettes in the room he drinks alcohol in with his wrestling team of would-be sons.  He can barely breathe.  But eventually he, and the film, will.

Also with: Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Lee Perkins, Brett Rice, Guy Boyd.

"Foxcatcher" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for drug use and a scene of violence.  Its running time is two hours and ten minutes.

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