“Foxcatcher” Movie Review

      “Foxcatcher” director Bennett Miller has certainly proven his unique ability to extract Oscar caliber performances from actors known previously as mere funny men.  He did so with Jonah Hill with his previous effort, “Moneyball”, and has more than likely repeated the same feat, times two, with both Channing Tatum and Steve Carell turning in performances that will almost certainly garner acting nominations.  This bodes well for “Foxcatcher”, a film whose story comes to rely on the power of each actor’s performance and how effective they are in selling the role, especially since Tatum and Carell have been typecast in comedic roles for their entire careers and are both sporting enough makeup effects to make Mike Myers jealous.  “Foxcatcher” tells the true story of the famed wrestling brother duo David and Mark Schultz, as well as their relationship with multimillionaire John du Pont as they set out to train for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. 

     Miller’s film uses a very chalky, bland color palette throughout and never reveals the kind of gloss one would expect from a film about a highly decorated Olympic champion.  Regardless of what’s accomplished on screen, there always seems to be this murky sort of dreadful undertone that carries on from scene to scene, making nearly all of the proceedings uncomfortable and unsettling.  Just two years removed from his Gold Medal win at the 84 games, Mark (Channing Tatum) seems to be struggling to find his way in the world.  Long gone are the celebrations and the spoils that come from being a champion, as he finds himself subbing in for his brother speaking to elementary school kids for a mere $20.  When that money immediately goes towards the purchase of fast food and we later see Mark dining in his dingy apartment on Ramen noodles, we begin to understand he’s at a crossroads in his life and doesn’t exactly know when his next opportunity may come.

     Mark’s older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also won Gold in Wrestling at the 84 games and seems to have his life in order as he is married with two children and coaches wrestling at the local high school where he is also preparing Mark for the upcoming World Championships.  Dave is a calming influence to Mark, as their early scenes together always seem to have Dave inquiring about what’s bothering his little brother.  While it’s clear Mark still has the hunger and drive to be the best, you get the feeling he’d like things to be a little easier and not such a struggle.  That’s about the time Mark received an invitation to meet with John du Pont (Steve Carell), a wealthy Pennsylvania businessman, at his estate known as “Foxcatcher”.  Once arrived, John offers Mark the opportunity of a life time.  John has built a state of the art wrestling training facility and intends on hosting the U.S. Wrestling Olympic Team with Mark installed as the head trainer.  At face value, this seems to be the break Mark had been waiting for.

     From the beginning, John du Pont comes off as an interesting character, maybe a bit arrogant, but soon what motivates him to want to fund Mark’s training and more importantly installing himself as the coach with no previous wrestling experience comes to light.  It seems John has a few lingering mommy issues and has failed to set himself apart from the family business in life, thereby proving to her he can succeed outside of her weblike influence.  John’s mom, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) despises wrestling and yet John believes that him being seen internationally as the coach that leads Mark Schultz to another Gold Medal while training him under the veil of a team based at his estate’s namesake will elevate him in the eyes of both his family and his peers.  To demonstrate this, Miller features one of those really uncomfortable nails on the chalkboard type scenes about midway through the film.  During one of the practices, John notices his mother, who is wheelchair bound, entering the facility to observe.  John immediately takes control of the instruction, which was being led by Dave Schultz at the time, and gives what I believe he thinks is a motivational speech (it will make your stomach churn) and then proceeds to demonstrate an arm drag technique to a room full of Olympic level wrestlers.  How any of them kept a straight face is beyond me and yet the scene turns out to be crucial in the way the story turns from there.  It’s also a solid piece of top shelf acting by Carell that truly defines his role as John.

     As a sports film, “Foxcatcher” plays unlike any I have seen before.  For some reason, none of the recreated events such as the 86 World Championships or the 87 Olympic Trials have any  of the exhilaration we’ve come to expect from films like “Hoosiers” or “Miracle”.  Perhaps it’s because you know something isn’t right, but you just can’t put your finger on it at any given point.  Of course all of this culminates in a number of melodramatic relationship issues between Mark and his brother as well as Mark and John, all of which play out in a number of superbly acted scenes that easily could’ve gone south at any hint of being mishandled by the director.  Curiously though, Miller does insert a scene that features Mark and his teammates watching a UFC match featuring Gary Goodridge in 1987 with the problem being the UFC didn’t even start until 1993 and I believe the match they were showing took place in 1994.  Perhaps Miller put it in there as a sort of Easter Egg since Mark would eventually go on to fight and beat Goodridge at UFC 9 in his MMA debut.  GRADE: A-