Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Foxcatcher (2014) – Review

Review: Foxcatcher is a dark and intense character study.

The film is about Mark and David Schultz, brothers who both won Gold Olympic Medals for wrestling in 1984. In 1987, Mark is approached by wealthy businessman John du Pont, interested in making his family farm, Foxcatcher, into a wrestling training facility. Mark agrees to join du Pont on his farm, while his brother Dave is hesitant initially, but eventually gives in to du Pont’s financial advances. Mark wants to be the best wrestler in the world, but there is a weird dynamic that starts to develop between him and du Pont that distracts him. Meanwhile, du Pont struggles with feelings of paranoia and jealously, specifically targeted at Mark’s relationship with his brother. As tension mounts, feelings of uneasiness and fear form between each of the men.

Films made as pure character studies are almost unheard of in today’s cinema, as audiences seem to need narrative to direct and engage them. With Foxcatcher, director Bennett Miller seems to have made a pure character study – maybe in the guise of a sports drama. The results of the wrestling matches are meaningless to this film (which seem to be the character’s main focus). Instead, this film is solely focused on the darkness that seems to be brewing in these characters (more specifically John du Pont and Mark Schultz).

John du Pont, as presented, is incredibly powerful, seemingly getting everything he wants. Miller often shows him in meetings with military personnel and surrounded by military hardware (du Pont’s family company is a leader in arms manufacturing). Yet, he grew up friendless and his mother seems to have had a negative impact on his upbringing, creating a man who is very envious of what others have. Maybe deep down, he just wants to be liked, but only on his terms. Growing up in controlled isolation, feeling both powerful and alone, he wants to be respected and have friends, but is jealous of others who garner similar feelings in others.

Meanwhile, Mark Schultz, though an Olympic Gold Medalist, lives in his brother’s shadow. His brother, Dave, is a student of wrestling – competing not only as a world class wrestler but also as an expert coach. Mark has what it takes to be the best, but seemingly only if his brother teaches him and prepares him. In du Pont’s offer to train at Foxcatcher, Mark sees an opportunity to make a name for himself on his own – something he craves; however, without his brother’s positive influence, Mark falls on bad habits and is overconfident. He does not seem to be able to make it on his own, which only feeds into his own negative tendencies.

John du Pont and Mark Schultz form almost a father-son relationship as Mark trains for the World Championships in 1987. At first, everything seems to be going well and they become friends. Yet, Mark finds himself distracted by John’s needs – he wants to be regarded as a good wrestler as well, he introduces Mark to drugs and he is not a real coach even though he likes to think of himself as one and be treated as one. John seems to want all the benefit with none of the work – both in terms of being Mark’s father figure and turning Mark into the best wrestler in the world. The problem is, however, that Mark needs a real mentor and coach, like his brother, to get him ready. Left to his own devises, he is self-destructive. Thus, extreme frustration builds in both men – neither getting exactly what they want out of their relationship in the long-term. John also seems to be emotionally manipulating Mark, making him feel bad much in the same way John’s mother emotionally bullies him.

When Dave joins them at Foxcatcher, it proves to be a recipe for disaster. By this time, Mark is already emotionally finished with John, after failing at the 1988 Olympics and being treated poorly by John. Meanwhile, John, plagued by unfounded feelings of jealously and paranoia, sees Dave as replacing him as the head of Foxcatcher wrestling – as coach – and poisoning his good relationship with Mark.

Miller does not really make big narrative choices with the film in terms of telling a story. The wrestling matches are not really that important (though, they are designed and executed very well and are quite compelling). Instead, he wants the audience to focus solely on the characters – on the anger and madness that seems to grip them. I almost think that the most interesting character is Dave. He seems the most normal and is clearly aware that things are not right with John du Pont and yet he stays and placates him. Is he corrupted by the money that John is offering both him and USA Wrestling? Is he making a personal sacrifice for the greater good of his sport? He also sees the pain and anger in his own brother, who definitely has a hard time in life (for whatever reason). He is very supportive of his brother and does everything for him. Ultimately, he finds himself between these two broken people, and his goodness is eventually enveloped by the darkness that he attempts to take on.

The film is tonally incredibly bleak and intense, and paced quite slow. Miller could have easily staged the narrative as a thriller (as du Pont descends into madness) or given the film more narrative touchstones (or clichés) that the audience recognize in its structure. I call the film a pure character study because Miller simply presents his characters, all narrative elements exist only as background devices to place them in time and space, allowing them to naturally gestate for the audience as complex emotional beings. As a result, the film is very gripping in moments and fairly slow in others. The film is not so much entertainment as it is a deep look into human emotion (focusing more on its darker spectrum: pain, anger, fear, paranoia and so on).

Foxcatcher is brilliant in terms of it character work, exposing its characters’ souls; but it is not an entertaining film and certainly will not work for anyone expecting something light or story-driven. Yet, for those wanting to look deep inside these characters, to explore both the darkness and light of man, it is absorbing.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Bennett Miller is an excellent director, especially when it comes to digging deeper into his characters. His three features, Capote, Moneyball and now Foxcatcher, all have interesting stories that surround the characters, but Miller focuses on his characters, presenting the narrative elements as purely background – elements that merely place his characters in a moment in time but do not define them. Miller is much more interested in their emotional makeup and what elements in their past have contributed to their emotional makeup in the present. He also elicits wonderful performances from his actors – something that would seem essential for a director that is so focused on character. While I think (objectively) Capote is his best film to date, my personal favorite is Moneyball. I very much look forward to what he does next.

Composer Rob Simonsen’s score is understated, almost nonexistent in many instances; yet, it helps establish the tone of the film very well, as it plays on the darker themes. Cinematographer Greig Fraser’s photography as well seems to cast a very dark, bleak hue over the film, as his palate is almost void of color. Really, the film is rather depressing from a visual stand point (although, Fraser’s work is also very good – there is a beauty to his shots of the farm). Jess Gonchor’s production design grounds the film in a very naturalistic, realistic space. The film feels authentic, both in performance and visual aesthetic.

The performances in Foxcatcher are all excellent. Vanessa Redgrave does not have much screen time as John du Pont’s mother Jean, but her presence lingers over him. She is firm and overbearing in her scenes with him, casting down disapproval, which seems to haunt him. Mark Ruffalo is brilliant in the film. His performance as David Schultz feels extraordinarily natural, as if he were born and lived his life as the character. It is quite remarkable. Steve Carell is incredible as well. His performance is so different than anything he has done before. His portrayal of John du Pont is chilling, as he creates an emotional bully (taking out the emotional burden that his mother puts on him on others). The performance, however, does not feel as natural, as Carell is clearly in a lot of make-up that makes du Pont feel somewhat cartoonish at times. Channing Tatum is also great as Mark Schultz. He is able to emote so much pain and anger, as he seems to not be able to cope with his inner demons.

Summary & score: Foxcatcher features many of 2014’s best performances, as the film explores the dark emotional recesses of its dynamic characters. It is a skillfully crafted pure character drama, in the truest sense. 8/10

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