Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Foxcatcher: Men behaving badly

Foxcatcher (2014) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, drug use and violence

By Derrick Bang

The über-rich haven’t been this creepy since 1990’s Reversal of Fortune.

And that was based on a true story, as well.

John Du Pont (Steve Carell, left) knows precisely how to inspire the impressionable Mark
Schultz (Channing Tatum), and for a time the weathy older man seems well-meaning, if
a bit daft. But this relationship dynamic is about to turn very, very uncomfortable.
Foxcatcher is director Bennett Miller’s highly unsettling account of wealthy heir John du Pont’s bewildering (to the outside world) decision to position himself as head coach, trainer and sponsor of the U.S. wrestling team hoping to qualify for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. This scheme is granted public legitimacy when brothers Mark and Dave Schultz are dragged into du Pont’s ludicrous, vanity-laden quest, accelerating an already uncomfortable sibling dynamic that becomes increasingly toxic.

Disaster is inevitable; the only question is what form the crisis will take.

Miller excels at getting the best from his casts, and he’s noted for guiding actors to Oscar nominations — and wins — in compelling, character-driven slices of history. Both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener earned well-deserved nominations for Capote; Hoffman went home with the prize. Brad Pitt never looked better than he was in Moneyball, and Miller worked a modern miracle by orchestrating goofball Jonah Hill’s transformation into a serious actor.

But it’s equally important to note that Miller surrounds himself with some of Hollywood’s most skilled writers, who also earned Academy Award nominations (respectively) for their work on Capote and Moneyball. I’ve absolutely no doubt that E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman will garner similar praise for their insidiously subtle, squirm-inducing depiction of what emerged as the late 1980s’ most bizarre sports scandal.

But it’s hard to detect the fine-tuned screenplay right away, because of the almost scary degree to which this film’s three stars inhabit their respective roles. They’re all excellent, crossing that threshold where we often forget the actor playing the part, and wholly accept that we’ve somehow been transported back in time, and granted a window on the activities of these actual people.

Dave and younger brother Mark Schultz were heroes at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, both taking gold medals in different weight classes of men’s freestyle wrestling; they also took world golds at, respectively, Kiev (1983) and Budapest (1985).

They’re played here by Mark Ruffalo (almost unrecognizable) and Channing Tatum. The film’s narrative catches them during the early build-up to Seoul, and their circumstances couldn’t be more different. As often is the case with siblings, their personalities are wholly distinct. Dave radiates calm, confidence and authority; Mark, although idolizing his older brother, chafes at being in his shadow.

Dave is happily married — Sienna Miller plays his wife, Nancy, whom we see infrequently but significantly — and is devoted to their two children. He runs a gym and has contracts to train wrestlers; he’s also helping Mark with a daily work-out regimen. Dave and his family don’t live ostentatiously, but they’re clearly comfortable and content.

Mark, in stark contrast, leads a pauper’s existence in a threadbare apartment, taking inspirational speaking gigs at local grade schools in exchange for $20 checks that go toward meager ramen noodle dinners.

Dave also is somewhat smarter and wiser than the oddly immature Mark, and Tatum’s depiction of this ingenuousness is fascinating. It’s as if thoughts and concepts struggle to emerge from Mark’s brain; we can almost watch the slow journey made by each word, as it struggles to reach Tatum’s lips. Nothing we’ve seen in the young actor’s popcorn-laden résumé thus far would suggest his ability to express this level of emotional complexity; it’s a bravura, career-enhancing performance.

And not the only one.

The gullible Mark is easy pickings for du Pont (Steve Carell), who approaches out of the blue one day, offering to gift the struggling wrestler with financial resources and a state-of-the-art training facility at Foxcatcher Farm, thus far devoted primarily to the stable of world-class horses overseen by du Pont’s mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave). It’s an irresistible opportunity, and Mark couldn’t begin to refuse.

Carell’s performance is similarly transformative, and not merely because the actor is somewhat concealed beneath significant facial prosthetics. John du Pont also is a slow talker, but for entirely different reasons. He wears assumed authority like a set of clothes: the quiet arrogance of ultra-powerful individuals who are accustomed to being obeyed and tolerated, no matter what.

In a word, Carell is chilling; we soon perceive that John du Pont is a complete fruit bat. He has all manner of unhealthy fixations — with guns, with his mother’s approval (never granted) — and now has positioned himself to indulge latent homo-erotic inclinations by, what else, becoming a wrestling coach. Needless to say, he’s wholly unqualified for such a role; the very idea is preposterous. But that doesn’t stop him.

Poor Mark, desperately in need of a father figure who isn’t his older brother, can’t help but succumb. And, for a time, it looks as though du Pont’s sponsorship — no matter how unlikely — might be a good thing. But that doesn’t last long, because whatever his other deficiencies, du Pont is a reasonable judge of character ... and he eventually realizes that he picked the wrong Schultz brother.

Trouble is, Dave has no desire to uproot his family.

Trouble is, nobody refuses John du Pont. He simply won’t permit it.

All sorts of themes roil in the resulting, increasingly uncomfortable dynamic: bitter sibling rivalry, various parent/child issues, the seduction of the innocent. The combustible brew is fueled further by all three actors, who exude verisimilitude to a degree not often seen on the big screen.

Ruffalo, though seemingly given the least showy character, imbues Dave with a touching blend of serenity and compassion. We see this constantly, and marvel each time at the delicacy of Ruffalo’s performance. Watch his face, very early on, during a warm-up session when Dave guides Mark through limbering exercises: the former coaxing results from the latter the way a parent would encourage a very young and impressionable child.

Or later, during a revealing chat, once Dave has begun to recognize that the relationship between Mark and John du Pont is far less than healthy. Dave probes but extracts little from his younger brother; Ruffalo gets so much mileage from the way he nods, measures his words, glances off to one side.

Actually, that’s the genius of Miller’s approach: It takes a very brave director to build performances from silent moments, and equally courageous actors to trust in their ability to deliver such hushed character intricacy. This film is filled with quiet, contemplative scenes, with cinematographer Greig Fraser’s camera slowly pulling in for a tight focus on an actor’s face.

Equally important, all these bits of film are assembled superbly by editors Jay Cassidy, Stuart Levy and Conor O’Neill.

Redgrave’s Jean du Pont doesn’t appear much in this story, and she gets no more than a few curt sentences of dialogue; rest assured, they land like physical blows on her son’s face, even though Carell’s reaction goes no further than his suddenly smoldering eyes.

The other sorta/kinda key player in this drama is Anthony Michael Hall, as du Pont’s assistance, Jack: an occasional go-between from John to Mark. This is the one character who could have benefited from a bit more exposure; we’ve no real clue about Jack — whether he’s motivated by money, loyalty or something else — and we really need to understand him better, in light of what eventually goes down.

Production designer Jess Gonchor’s efforts are terrific, particularly in terms of contrasting Mark’s initially seedy surroundings with the outrageously opulent Foxcatcher mansion ... which, despite its palatial allure, carries an odd undertone of moral decay.

Much of what actually went down throughout the year covered by this drama will remain forever unknown, of course, because so much occurred behind closed doors, during private moments with pairs of these three characters, and sometimes all three of them. We can’t help being fascinated by what drives John du Pont to this delusional flight of sports fancy; we also have all sorts of questions for Dave, given decisions he eventually makes.

But however these behind-the-scenes details actually occurred, scripters Frye and Futterman build an absolutely convincing case. The result is both mesmerizing and deeply, deeply disturbing: a persuasive depiction of power’s ability to corrupt absolutely, and the heartbreaking collateral damage that often results.

As with the wholly fictitious Whiplash — and what are the odds that we’d get two unhealthy mentor/student dramas at the same time? — Foxcatcher is a profoundly distressing viewing experience.

But boy, you won’t forget it any time soon.

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