Foxcatcher (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Foxcatcher (2014)

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Mark Schultz has long-lived in the shadow of his brother Dave.  Both are wrestling champions, but because of Mark's crippling shyness he has never been able to find his own path.  Then John du Pont, heir to the du Pont fortune, sets his sites on Mark, then Dave, in the hopes they can bring home the gold in the '88 Olympic Games.  But when du Pont begins acting erratically, then violently, the Shultz brothers wonder if they can balance their new prosperity with safety.  Bennett Miller directs Foxcatcher, starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo.

Protege and mentorFoxcatcher is tiring.  Bennett Miller's fourth feature film sees him reaching into the same bin of festering emotions and cold environments that made Capote such a thrilling experience in 2005.  But Foxcatcher is fatalistic where Capote was coy, establishing a road to darkness for the Schultz brothers in their ill-fated dealings with John du Pont, and never deviating from it no matter how boring the predetermined outcome.

This isn't to say there isn't room in the world for a fatalistic romp.  But I grow tired when films constantly remind me that negative emotions are brewing in the characters by piling on more shadows and long, silent glances.  Repetition in this way can be good to build emotional texture.  Foxcatcher just shows Steve Carell wheezing into his guns so many times I started to wonder if they distributed asthma medication for him.

Channing Tatum does career-best work in the otherwise uninspiring Foxcatcher.

Channing Tatum does career-best work in the otherwise uninspiring Foxcatcher.

Long before Carell shows up and Miller puts Foxcatcher on an inevitable course with tragedy, Channing Tatum, as Mark Schultz, does the heavy lifting in creating an oppressive atmosphere in the first half.  Is there anyone else out there who has done such an amazing job turning their meager talents into world-best performances the greatest directors in the world have to bid for?  Tatum makes the opening moments of Foxcatcher a clinic in aggressive, silent, and suggestive acting.  He creates an entire character from his shoulders, letting them drop completely when having a bowl of ramen, or tensing up to his neck when he's uncomfortable talking in front of people.  It makes those moments when he lashes out so shocking, as though this hulk of a man has withdrawn so completely into himself that his bursts of aggression are as rare as they are violent.

Tatum's performance is so good and minimalistic in Foxcatcher it makes Carell's work that much more ineffective.  Carell, who has shown he has the chops to play a villain in otherwise forgettable movies like The Way, Way Back, dipped into the old Oscar standby of prosthesis to enhance his performance as John du Pont.  Carell's performance is not helped by the extended nose he dons for du Pont, and ends up speaking most of his lines with a wheeze so strong it seems he is trying to enhance the nose and not the character.  I have to wonder what Mark Ruffalo, who does a good enough job as the decent Dave Schultz, would have done if he had the opportunity to play against type and was cast as the paranoid du Pont.

Carell's uninspiring performance is not helped by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's screenplay which writes du Pont as two different characters.  The more successful of these versions of du Pont, and the one Carell is effective at, is unsure of how people are supposed to act and weakly mimics the positive reinforcement of those around him.  The dialogue for this du Pont is creepily random and suggests how he views other humans as little more than pets.  The other, almost groan-worthy du Pont, is the one riddled with mommy issues.  As though his growing mental instability in a world of physical threats wasn't enough, he is saddled with a broad psychological handicap in the form of an aristocratic mother who just doesn't approve of him.

This subplot does little but waste the talents of Vanessa Redgrave, who spends each scene in her wheelchair while offering passive-aggressive criticism of du Pont's life, and paints du Pont in a predictably pathetic way.  What the details involving mama du Pont do add is more foreshadowing in a film so filled with it the sun threatens to disappear completely.  Barely an hour into Foxcatcher and du Pont has started doing drugs with Mark, purchased a gun and fired it indoors, and gets into increasingly physical confrontations with the Schultz brothers.  The trailer for Foxcatcher is a cliff notes version of these escalating behaviors, telegraphing just how much of an exercise in Chekov's gun Foxcatcher is.

I'd like to see Mark Ruffalo play against type, but he turns in another effective performance of a good man.

I'd like to see Mark Ruffalo play against type, but he turns in another effective performance of a good man.

Foxcatcher is not a film constructed to surprise, but mire viewers in a growing sense of dread.  The problem is Miller proceeds to build this dread through obvious psychological problems, like du Pont's mommy issues, or by making the surrounding environment sink deeper into the color grey.  It feels like a movie going through the motions of a shocking drama and takes the most obvious route to get to the conclusion.  Miller sometimes includes a wonderfully illustrative detail, such as the way the 27-year old Mark watches television inches away from the screen like an elementary school kid, that remind me of the immense talent he possesses.

There's just not enough of those moments for me to encourage others to purchase a ticket for Foxcatcher, or even rent it a few months down the line.  Miller's work in Foxcatcher has the feel of someone going through the motions in a genre that poses no challenge to him.  It's not even worth watching for Tatum's excellent performance because I know he has a long career ahead of him and will get better work at some point.  Foxcatcher is an empty prestige drama, played on a familiar pitch, and a deeply unsatisfying experience.

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Tail - FoxcatcherFoxcatcher (2014)

Directed by Bennett Miller.
Screenplay written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman.
Starring Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, and Steve Carell.

Posted by Andrew

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