Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Foxcatcher (2014, Bennett Miller)

Hulking bodies and broken psyches drive Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller's fourth film and fourth based on a true event.  This is an unrelenting American horror story in which misplaced longings build to unbearable levels, giving way to upmost tragedy.

Combining the cold blooded nature of the killings centred upon in 2005's Capote and the sporting world of his last film - Moneyball -  Foxcatcher tells the torturous relationship between self-appointed wrestling coach John DuPont and the talented Schultz brothers who he came to manage. Manage, not by talent but through sheer wealth and an illogical determination to mend his once great but now flailing country to make it prosperous and proud once again. 

DuPont means to do so by training a team of talented young wrestlers to compete and win the 1988 Seoul Olympics. This team would be headed by star player Mark Shultz who won Olympic gold in '84 who after had been thrown on the junk pile. Shultz, played here by Channing Tatum, is a towering neanderthal like man with a pronounced lower jaw, hunched shoulders, and hanging arms. There's a big heart to match his other large muscles here but he's a broken childlike man looking for a place in the world. Introduced by making ends meat, Mark attends schools to motivate youngsters with his accomplishments, being paid small cash to do so, then returning to his grim lodgings to eat packeted noodles -  hardly the food of champions. One day, like a scene out of some classic noir, he receives a mysterious phone call beckoning him to the DuPont residence where he's offered his place in team Foxcatcher. Coaxed by the words of patriotism by John DuPont in person, Mark inevitably succumbs. 

Unlike his younger brother, David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) isn't as impressed and decides to decline despite the teaming of the two brothers being what DuPont really desires. It's here that the brother's nomadic upbringing comes into the picture as from an ever moving broken home, David has settled with a family and has used this to overcome his childhood while Mark is still living it, remaining tortured by its lack of parental figures and roots. This also reveals the gravitational pull of DuPont's influence on Mark as he's week, looking for a purpose and love beyond his brother.

Steve Carell is almost unrecognisable as John DuPont and against the golden boy wrestler he's the antithesis of a man built for such a sport: he's meagre and bird like in appearance, as if his bones would shatter like glass. He speaks in broken sentences that only hint at the broken man behind the words. It's a remarkable performance, like an amalgamation of Travis Bickle and The Simpsons' Mr. Burns, and like Tatum is a performance largely built around physical idiosyncrasies that would be too easy to fall into caricature but feel truly lived in by these actors.

It's mostly in the silence of the film that Bennett and his actors allow for the story to develop. Take for instance the first time we see the Schultz brothers training together, which is also the first time they share the screen; it's one of the film's opening scenes and in it Ruffalo and Tatum convey such a wide spectrum of emotions that you realise early on you're in the company of a team of filmmakers at the top of their game.

Too call Foxcatcher a film about wrestling would be accurate as long as you were referring to the wrestling of demons throughout. Ultimately this is what E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's screenplay boils down to - an exploration of the collateral damage from such demons with the innocent suffering the largest casualties. DuPont's choice of wrestling in the first place is odd given his naturally fragile demeanour and being the future of an elite American dynasty, as his mother (a wheelchair-bound Vanessa Redgrave) refers to the sport as below her son in one of many examples her looking upon her only offspring in a mixed look of icy bafflement and disappointment. This venture into the world of wresting makes sense when looking at it as a defying gesture to a controlling matriarch, however the homosexual subtext that the film has garnered thus far seems misplaced. While it's true there are moments of uncomfortable master/slave like power shifts between John and Mark (Hitchcock's Marnie came to mind several times) this is a film, I believe, that explores DuPont's venture as one seeking intimacy of any kind and not the sexual variety. By using the same means that destroyed his childhood, DuPont uses wealth to get what he wants and buys players for his games instead of developing any kind of interpersonal skills and relationships. From a man who found out at the age of 16 that his best friend had been paid all along for his services, this tragically maladjusted millionaire uses the sport as a means to be close to others, whether that be on the mat individually or part of a team. The most striking example showing DuPont administering the same parental behaviour that corrupted him in the first place is best shown comparing two scenes that lodge in the memory. The first is a beautifully shot sequence in which John releases his mother's horses from their stables soon after her passing; a moment of simple subtext as a son lets go of his emotional baggage except we soon learn that letting go for John is impossible as he's cursed to being consumed by it instead. The second scene contain a simple framing of Mark as he's visited by brother David in his outhouse located on Foxcatcher Farm; Mark is framed in his doorway -  a stable door in which the top section is opened so he can converse with his brother, his hulking top half sticking out indeed like that of a horse. Kept on the farm like the other wrestlers, DuPont merely collects people like his mother's precious horses and like the many antiques of the main house. Kept for their function and aesthetic purpose but stored either at a distance or on display. His view of human companionship beyond this purpose is alien to him.

Foxcatcher appears overly loose and meandering at times and on reflection could be argued to needing tighting - however this is also the film's key to power as the taunting and misdirection almost cancels out the suspension (though never the tension) before hitting a deathblow. Unlike those in Foxcatcher Farm who failed to notice the warning signs, we the audience have foresight into the tragedy unfolding before our eyes and  the signposted deterioration of DuPont as he grows increasingly detached and erratic. His love of guns becomes unruly and his day-to-day demeanour more subdued perhaps by his cocktail of drugs along with his eroding psyche.

Like his Capote, Bennett Miller has a real knack for creating an atmosphere of dread and manages to give his films a quality in which you're taken back to these moments, no matter how mundane or painful they are, there's a sheen to his biopics and yet they're beautifully balanced with the candid. Foxcatcher sees Bennett go three for three in his feature films so far and while it's a draining and bleak venture this time,  it's becoming somewhat of a joy to see this filmmaker's take on seismic moments of American history, even as each subject appears more esoteric than the last.

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