Sunday, January 4, 2015

Foxcatcher Review

I was alone for most of the winter holiday period -- with one, significant, and wonderful, exception at Christmas, wherein I even ended up being photographed by The New York Times -- and it gave me a chance to see several of the "Oscar race" films in theaters. Most recently, on Friday (1/2), I finally saw director Bennett Miller's (of Capote fame's) brilliant 2014 film, Foxcatcher--the film was released in Nov. 2014, but I saw it 2 months after it came out.

The film is an account of the tragic, true story of Dr. John Eleuthère du Pont, of the old-money, Delaware, du Pont family (of French and Huguenot descent) -- founders of the Dupont Corporation -- and his creation of a wrestling facility at his family's Foxcatcher Farm; founded, principally, in support in the 1980s of training of the Olympic wrestler, Mark Schultz, and then, as sponsor, of USA Wrestling, with training "led" by Mark Schultz' brother, Dave Schultz. I put the word "led" in quotes because, as is part of a very public story, du Pont was a tragic figure, who believed that he -- with no real professional training in wrestling -- was really the coach and leader of the USA Olympics team for Seoul Summer 1988. Du Pont even, as a result of his need to more intimately connect to/master wrestling, underwent training in the sport and ended up, in his 50s, competing locally in his age category.

But du Pont was known to be a troubled person, who was once sued by his wife of only a few months in her divorce filing for allegedly pointing a loaded gun at her. Miller's deft Foxcatcher tells of du Pont's relationship with the two Olympic wrestlers and the training team that he assembled at the Foxcatcher facility, and with his mother. According to the film, all of these relationships were, or eventually became, uncomfortable, with du Pont having a superiority complex -- based, as told in the film, on feelings of inferiority in his relationship with his family, especially with his haughty, seemingly unfeeling mother (played brilliantly in "Foxcatcher," in a very brief turn, by the great Vanessa Redgrave) -- which he could bolster with his vast wealth, and which he wielded over the athletes. In the end (spoiler alert for those who do not know the public story at all), du Pont shoots and kills Dave Schultz, and, in real life, he ended up in prison and remained incarcerated until his death in 2010. The reasons why this happens have to be experienced in the film itself.

The film moves as slowly, and is as cold, as the du Pont character is portrayed. There is never a moment of respite or true warmth throughout, and Greig Fraser's cinematography -- I've admired him since Zero Dark Thirty, and later learned that he also filmed Snow White and The Huntsman, both of which were highly atmospheric -- reflects this perfectly. Composer Rob Simon's deliberate, "sinister" musical score also, without ever being obvious, makes you fear at all times that du Pont will suddenly come unhinged.

The performances are remarkable. There is much talk about Steve Carrell's uncharacteristic undertaking -- Carrell is best known, to-date, as a comedic actor -- of the role of John du Pont, already lauded by critics and nominated for Golden Globe and Screen Actor's Guild Best Actor awards, with a near-guaranteed nomination for a Best Actor Academy Award. Until I saw Foxcatcher, I believed that Benedict Cumberbatch, for his brilliant turn as Dr. Allan Turing in Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game, was the likely frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar -- he too is nominated for all of the other major awards -- but, in my humble opinion (and that of many), Carrell even eclipses Cumberbatch, with his magnificent, tightly-controlled (in terms of his character and his acting), eerie performance.

There is also buzz about deserved nominations for the wonderful Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz, who, in addition to his strong acting turn, also had to undergo extensive physical training and transformation to play an Olympic-class wrestler. He brings the only real moments of tenderness to Foxcatcher, but, as real as they "feel," these elements of the plot are, fundamentally, devices.

I'm not sure why there is not more to-do about Channing Tatum's performance as Mark Schultz. Perhaps it is because his performance has enough screen time to make him a co-Best Actor nominee with Carrell, and, with so many strong Best Actor turns this year, he's being "shut out" for awards by his co-star. Tatum is nothing short of astonishing in his part, also, despite his usual athleticism, requiring a specific physical "transformation" for him physically, and, in terms of acting, the best that I've ever seen him do. The depth of his feelings overall, and for his brother, and, ultimately -- both positively and negatively -- for du Pont, and his life transformation in the story, are astonishing. Truly powerful work, which I hope leads to "richer" roles for him. (I assume that he will be given more substantive roles -- if he continues along the hard-working path on which he has been treading for quite a while -- when he is a bit older, and past, or somewhat past, his recent/current "sex symbol" phase.)

Foxcatcher is not perfect. I found the pacing occasionally "flat" where it was supposed to be slow and brooding, yet filled with a little bit more "energy"; but, overall, with leading performances of such stellar quality, this film is -- once again, imho -- not to be missed.

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