foxcatcher1[xrr rating=3.25/5]Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher opens with a strenuous workout that seems defined more by desperation than any display of strength. A lone wrestler struggles with the faceless form of a grappling dummy, finally ending up winded, his arms still wrapped around the anonymous mass. It’s a fitting image for a film whose conflicts play out indirectly, with proxy victims taking the place of genuine sources of aggression, full of antagonistic, inarticulate characters incapable of vocalizing or adequately applying their frustration. Telling the entwined story of a damaged billionaire and a troubled Olympian, their shared path toward destruction and the innocent bystanders who get in their way, it presents a series of spaces defined by their imprisoning qualities, envisioning the disparate interiors of cramped hotel rooms and palatial estates, concentrically arrayed wrestling rings and lonely old-fashioned cottages all as similar sorts of cages.

Struggling to get by in the gap between the ’84 and ’88 Olympics, gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) rents a drab apartment whose only defining quality is his huge collection of trophies and awards, a place where he can slurp down ramen noodles in view of this personal shrine. A few economically-presented early scenes place Mark in the in the long shadow of his likeable older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who also won gold at the Los Angeles games, and whose interpersonal skills are a bit more up to par. That changes when the brooding, bullish Mark gets a call from John (Steve Carell), the eccentric, imbalanced scion of the du Pont chemical fortune, who lives a lushly appointed life in the family’s massive estate near Valley Forge. Du Pont is an awkward, sheltered rich kid in the body of a middle-aged man, an incomplete person who sloughs off his personal insufficiencies by engaging in broad, jingoistic fantasies, imagining himself as a heroic preserver of American ideals of strength, integrity and valor.

A longtime enthusiast of the sport, du Pont dreams of putting these ideals into action by creating a wrestling team, and he drafts Mark to make that dream a reality. Blessed with seemingly infinite resources and trusted with great responsibility for the first time in his life, du Pont becomes a sort of father figure to Mark, and despite his off-kilter creepiness the billionaire is adept at bending the young wrestler to his will. That is, at least, until the rich man’s insatiable thirst for victory causes him to pursue Dave (Mark Ruffalo), reigniting the sibling rivalry and creating a twisted new parental dynamic. John is himself no stranger to family problems; saddled with a distant yet overbearing mother (Vanessa Redgrave)—a stuffy, old sophisticate who views wrestling as a “low sport”—his attempts to train future Olympians seem intended to both needle her and desperately solicit attention. The three men thus end up in a protracted tussle, with an increasingly embittered Mark in the center—this raw, impulsive manchild clashing with both his well-meaning older brother and the equally impetuous du Pont.

What results is the kind of movie Hollywood gets criticized for no longer making, a reserved, pleasantly adult accounting of battles both physical and mental, with tensions exposed through sudden actions and quiet gestures, free from dumb explanatory scenes or showstopper moments. Yet Foxcatcher is also far from perfect, with an oppressive air of overbearing somberness only minimally offset by some moments of genuine humor. The film aims to assure viewers of its importance through a portentous focus on symbolic totems, the heavy sense of solemnity diminishing the effect of the drama by keeping everything at the same flat level. These flaws are summed up by the mishandling of Carell, with Miller seeking to confirm the serious nature of the comedian’s role by burying him in ghoulish makeup, complete with a prosthetic beak and a painted-on pastiness to his sagging body. Du Pont’s obsession with American values and the Soviet peril that threatens them seems aimed at a modern political right wing that prizes fantasies of strength and harmony over everything else. But the film’s exact message never fully comes through, buried beneath repeated insert shots of waving American flags and ominous swelling musical cues.

By the end of the film, one of the three principals will end up dead, the victim of a sudden but not entirely shocking murder. Yet while the information about who kills who circulates freely on the web, this is one of the rare instances in which a spoiler will seriously diminish the viewing experience. One of the best things going on here is Miller’s construction of a web of uncertainty, drawing tension from a constantly shifting power dynamic, in which the man with the money pulls the strings, but lives in constant danger from the young, aggressive monster he’s created. Knowing who will die thus removes one of the film’s finest elements, leaving an overblown (if well-crafted) story that stretches for a level of significance it cannot maintain.

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