Thursday, December 18, 2014

Power - and all its horrors

Foxcatcher, the latest film from director Bennett Miller, is an absorbing examination into how often power can represent nothing more than fools' gold. Beautifully directed, with engrossing performances from the three lead actors, this is one of the most troubling as well as one of the richest film experiences of recent years.

The film is based on the true story of the Schultz brothers, Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo), both of whom won gold medals at the 1984 Olympics wrestling competition. The film focuses more on the plight of Mark, who despite his personal success, has played second fiddle to his brother Dave, who is happily married with children and is being wooed by the USA wrestling federation to be a national coach. Mark, meanwhile, is not married and is a loner, training in isolation and living on meager wages. The opening shot of him in practice with a dummy, is a marvelous cinematic moment that introduces us to the sparseness of his life.

One day, Mark receives a phone call, asking that he come to meet John du Pont (Steve Carell) at his expansive estate in Delaware. Du Pont, a member of the famed family that made a fortune in chemicals, is an avid wrestling fan and has built a state of the art training facility; he woos Mark with this as well as a generous paycheck and wants him to train there in order to win the upcoming World Championships as well as a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. For Mark, this is an opportunity he cannot pass up; not only will it help him focus more on his training, it will reward him with the chance to have a father figure in his life (his parents died when he was a young boy).

This is all based on a true story, one that is known to many people. I won't give away the conclusion of this film, if only for people that don't know all the juicy details, but one can tell watching the film that there are many problems that will arise in the relationship between du Pont and the Schultz brothers. While Mark is initially more than happy to be appreciated for his talents, his feelings about du Pont soon change, given du Pont's strange behavior. Dave, who at first turns down the chance to move into du Pont's facility - named Foxcatcher Farms, for the hunting grounds his mother owns - eventually does move in; the results will be tragic for him.

All three of these principal characters are well defined. Mark is the loner, looking for self-pride, hungry for appreciation. Dave is much more self-confident; indeed, he is the most normal of the three. Happily married and given the gift of being able to coach other wrestlers, he relates extremely well to others and can serve as a problem solver between Mark and du Pont. Du Pont himself is an obsessive, spoiled rich brat who believes that his wealth can buy him power, if not friendship.

The three leads are first-rate. Ruffalo has been delivering understated performances for years now; given the subtleties of his craft, he has been sadly under appreciated as an actor. Here he lends a calming voice to this stormy situation and it's fascinating to watch Ruffalo move from quiet satisfaction over his lot in life - he usually has smile on his face and a cheerful greeting for others in his early scenes - to a sad reservation that he is in the middle of a nightmare. In one scene, he is asked by du Pont's documentarian to say something nice about his boss. Ruffalo has trouble coming up with the words and can barely even look at the camera. He's great in this brief scene.

As Mark Schultz, Channing Tatum is a standout. He has the physical presence (he put on weight for this role) and he also delivers on an emotional front. His character is out of his comfort zone almost from the start of this story and Tatum is able to show us the frustrations and confusion of Mark Schultz as his world starts to spin out of control. Despite his successes on the wrestling mat, he remains confused about the larger world; his speech patterns are that of a man who lacks confidence, especially as he has no idea about the consequences of his decision to work with du Pont (at one point in a meeting with his brother Dave and du Pont, Mark can barely speak; Tatum psychically withdraws into himself at this moment, afraid to speak his mind; it's a marvelous scene). Given his work in previous films such as 21 Jump Street and White House Down, I must admit I wondered if Tatum would be right for this role; boy, is he ever!

As John du Pont, Steve Carell turns in a performance that is 180 degrees from his comic turns in The 40 Year-Old Virgin or Anchorman 2 (or his most famous role as the boss on television's The Office). His physical transformation is stunning, as he wears a prosthetic nose and carries his head high, at a slightly tilted angle, to show his imagined power. He speaks in monosyllabic phrases, saying only what needs to be said, as though his words were instruments of power, as much as his money. Even the way he walks is creepy, gently stepping across a wrestling mat, as though every step was a momentous decision. Carell gives us a sad, troubled man who must dominate his world if he is to continue having meaning in his life. His performance is the centerpiece of this story and Carell is unforgettable.

Having now made three absorbing films, all about obsessive (or borderline obsessive) behavior of three men in America - Truman Capote in Capote (2005), Billy Beane in Moneyball (2011) and now John du Pont in this film - director Bennet Miller must be considered one of the most important filmmakers in America, if only for the subjects of his movies. Yet there is much more to his craft than the actions of his characters; Miller continually creates a small world that is moody and atmospheric, one in which his characters function amidst chaos. Miller is fascinated by individuals who take on challenges, intelligent men who fight until the end for their quest, be it the truth in a murder investigation or the right way to go about putting together a baseball team or a wrestling squad. There is great drama in these situations and Miller treats these stories with insight that offers us not only the visions of these men, but also the reactions of others who treat them as inferior or warped. It's not a pretty world in much of Miller's work, but it's one that is fascinating, especially in its questioning of how far these individuals can and will go to conquer their demons. I wrote that Miller must be considered one of the most important filmmakers in this country; I believe he is also one of our finest directors.

Foxcatcher is a layered film that thankfully is handled with great intelligence by Miller and his screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman. Here is a film that could have been preachy or melodramatic, given the story's grim details. Yet, this film, in the final analysis, is a study in character relationships; the three principals are so well defined on paper and in the flesh by these fine actors. John du Pont, Mark and Dave Schultz are more than players in a bizarre true story; they are indeed power brokers who become lost in glory. For filmgoers that want to experience the work of a director that scrutinizes human behavior and shows all the warts, Foxcatcher is a must see.

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