Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Heart of Darkness: Foxcatcher

Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher

Bennett Miller’s 2005 film Capote started out as a literary biopic about the novelist that became something more: an unsettling examination of the title character’s jealousy, self-absorption, and manipulative relationship with Perry Smith, the chief subject of In Cold Blood. His follow-up picture, Moneyball (2011), had a comic tone that belied a similar interest in a solitary male figure – in that case, baseball general manager Billy Beane. With Foxcatcher, he brings these two movies together in a sense, borrowing the dark mood and material from the former, the athletic subject matter from the latter. The film treats Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an amateur wrestler who won gold at the 1984 Olympics; his brother and coach, Dave (Mark Ruffalo); and the twisted connection they develop with blue blood millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell). The picture’s really not a sports movie. If Truman Capote’s neuroses came to overshadow the enjoyment of his writing, here the warped psyches of the main characters – especially Mr. Carell’s – occlude the thrill of athletic glory entirely. The film is a picture of a Freudian nightmare. It works by mood and feeling, needling under your skin and leaving a corrosive taste in your mouth.

Mr. Miller holds a fascination for isolated, marginalized men, whether heroes or antagonists. The line between those types got blurred for Capote and Smith, but they both functioned as alienated figures in society. Unlike them, Billy Beane was the normative character in Moneyball. But his normativity was an ironic one – he was a lone ranger in the baseball executive world, finding himself pitted against the old school scouts at the Oakland Athletics. Miller creates several more such men here, introducing us first to Mark in the mid-’80s. He’s leading a stark, spartan existence. By day, he gives motivational talks to bored middle-schoolers for $20.00 so he can buy fast-food meals; by night, he holes up alone in a converted attic apartment. The gray palette from Capote has returned; Schultz’s world is drab and dreary. And the irony is that he’s already a gold medalist – his speech is full of paeans to the nation, throwing his plight into greater relief: the American hero thrown into the trash bin by a country that stops caring as soon as the media stop filming.

Mark’s training at a university gym (the nondescript setting is the Pacific Northwest) under his brother’s tutelage, when fate intervenes: he gets a random phone call and a summons to meet du Pont at his estate, Foxcatcher Farms, in Pennsylvania. There the scion makes him an attractive offer: take up residence on the property and train at his plush private gym with Team Foxcatcher, the amateur wrestling squad Du Pont’s funding. He hopes to lead the U.S. to triumph at the ‘88 Olympics, and the Schultz brothers are the missing links. Du Pont pontificates with even more patriotic bromides, stating that he desires to see America great again, and that it honor a champion like Mark. In fact, his property borders the historic site of Valley Forge, establishing a link with Mark: the wrestler hangs a picture of Washington crossing the Delaware in his flat back home. Miller alludes to this nationalistic symbolism heavily in the film’s first half; in Mark and du Pont, we see two visions of America. The latter represents old money, the patrician planter class and vestige of the country’s familial aristocracy. Tracing their French presence in America back to 1800, the du Ponts made their money off munitions sales to the U.S. government. Mark gives us the realistic counter to this official American story – the working-class, disaffected, angry young man. When he sees the world du Pont offers, he can’t resist.

Channing Tatum and Steve Carell
But soon it becomes starkly apparent that du Pont has more nefarious reasons for inducting Mark into his team. After giving the kid all the luxuries he could want, he begins insisting that the wrestler think of him as a father and friend, not a coach. That’s not too hard, considering that du Pont doesn’t actually know a damn thing about wrestling – he merely acts like a coach, wearing the official team jump suit and parading pointlessly around the gym as if he’s contributing something. What he’s really doing is taking – taking the machismo and power of the athletes to boost his own broken ego. Du Pont’s led a sheltered life, we come to learn. Coddled and cocooned from a young age, his family’s wealth has catapulted him some place along the autism spectrum. He’s off, emotionally stunted and embittered. Friendless from youth, sissified by his parents, he craves the popularity and physical vitality of the wrestlers. He may even crave more; there’s a homoerotic overtone to his horseplay with the squad after they win the world championship (another theme from Capote). When his aging mother, a matriarchal Vanessa Redgrave, tells him wrestling is a “low” sport, he bristles, determined to prove her wrong, to prove his independence and confidence among men. But she walks out of his speech to the team, shaking her head at his pathetic attempts to model wrestling moves he doesn’t know – all a desperate plea for her affirmation.

As the best athlete on the team, Mark, then, is du Pont’s chief object of obsession. The kid’s wrestling triumphs will bring him glory, he thinks. Du Pont makes Mark his puppet and himself as surrogate father – he teaches him to revere the du Pont accomplishments, and feeds him speeches about his fatherly solicitude toward the young man. But his plan runs into an obstacle, obvious to us but not to the oblivious aristocrat. Without Dave at his side, Mark’s vulnerable to defeat, and du Pont’s no replacement. It’s only with Dave in his corner that Mark achieves victory at the world's championship, and it leaves du Pont feeling even more marginalized. The Schultz brothers have everything he doesn’t: Mark the physical perfection and athletic glory, Dave the playful freedom and indifference to propriety that comes with being a blue-collar family man. Dave stands outside du Pont’s sphere of influence at first, refusing to move to Foxcatcher no matter the dollar amount offered. If you can’t join them, beat them – du Pont embarks down a twisted path to at once ruin the Schultzes and milk them for the glory he so deeply desires. This twin desire is wrapped tightly together, deep under the still carriage that Carell creates for his character.

Stillness was a feature of Capote, in fact, and reprises as Miller’s chief stylistic feature here. This is cold realism, tinged with just a drop of dark poetry and even expressionistic/surrealism at moments. There’s hardly any movement in the wide images; cinematographer Greig Fraser adopts a still frame to almost every shot. The exteriors of the estate are drenched in fog and rain, the interiors with opaque light. Miller matches this look with a ponderous pace to the movie, painfully slow at times. Unlike with Capote, he never departs from the claustrophobia of the central relationship – there are no conventional movie montages, sub-narratives, or secondary locations. He never gives us the pleasure of an escape; even Mark’s victory at world’s championship is muffled and muted, refracted as it is through du Pont’s jealous perspective (though, the wrestling images have a classic, rounded look to them, like paintings of prize fighters from the Twenties and Thirties). In fact, Miller could do to trim the film or amplify its core. The script, by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, feels underwritten in places, which contributes to the sense of airy slowness. The key relationships are never fully explored and the central themes only insinuated. What are the animating features of Mark and Dave’s brotherhood, for example? Du Pont sews the seeds of rivalry into Mark, but we never see him air his private feelings about his brother. Likewise with du Pont’s dealings with his mother – the idea of her emotional negligence toward him is clear, but it comes off rather broad, despite Redgrave’s inimitable ability to convey a whole relationship in one scene. Miller doesn’t get into the grain and work out these dynamics. That’s because he’s inclined to let the material speak for itself and allow the audience to make the connections, as he did in Capote: he wants to show, not tell. But, in the case of Foxcatcher, it leaves room for the under-explained – e.g., why would Dave, who first refused to live at Foxcatcher, later on tell Mark that he can’t leave there, especially after witnessing du Pont’s bizarre behavior?

Miller is a great actors’ director; he drew out career performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Brad Pitt in his previous movies. He does so again here. Before this movie, the only distinction that Channing Tatum occupied in my mind was that of having a name that sounds distinctly like a stop on the London Tube. But he’s perfectly cast here, with the requisite athletic physicality and a jaw of granite that holds all of Mark’s pent up aggression. The pairing with Ruffalo seems counter-intuitive at first, as they have very different builds and looks. But it serves their characters well – Mark has more brute strength and bruised ego, where Dave is a master at technique and is the caring father and elder brother. (His display of wrestling locks gives you a deeper appreciation for the finer points of the sport). Ruffalo surprises here – he made a name for himself by playing the kind of bruised, searching soul that Tatum stands for. Wrestling binds them together, both literally and figuratively. They both adopt the uncanny wrestler's physicality, bow-legged, hunched at the waist, with arms bent and dangling forward almost like zombies. Near the beginning of the film, Miller gives us a long shot of Dave warming Mark up in the ring, a battery of headlocks, shoulder pulls, hand grappling, and bodily contortions that weaves a tapestry of delicacy and force. It’s an uncanny moment, a rhythmic exchange that becomes balletic. This primal dance captures all the movie’s latent ideas of brotherhood: the mixture of love, hate, competitiveness, admiration, interdependence and estrangement.

Steve Carell as John du Pont in Foxcatcher.
Du Pont wants to be in that embrace, but the fact that he never will fuels his insanity. The big news attending Foxcatcher was that comedian Steve Carell makes not just a dramatic turn, but does so as a truly dark character. For sure, Carell plays so much against type that you can’t help but be fixated on him. His face turned bibulous and fleshy, his teeth rotted, his body sagging, he transforms his physicality and voice to an impressive degree. Du Pont speaks with a kind of halting lisp, and seems to melt deeper into the furniture as the movie progresses. Carell gives an utterly controlled performance. Watch what he does when Mark tells him that Dave can’t be bought off, or when he finally snaps at Mark – each scene is mesmerizing in different ways. It’s almost too controlled actually – it starts to become a bit of a one-note tune as the movie creeps on. Hoffman kept showing us another fact of Capote’s gnarled self, while Carell shows the same maladjustments over and over. And du Pont’s so off the reservation that he’s almost out of another movie, something nearly unbelievable. Would du Pont really have been able to get as far as he has in life while having that many screws loose?

I suppose, though, that money can get you pretty far in this life. And I can’t chide Carell for his choices – the character is supposed to be pathological, after all. He will rightly command the attention of critics and award circles, but Tatum and Ruffalo give as fine performances playing with type as he does against. In fact, Ruffalo offers the two most affecting moments of screentime in the picture. In one, a cameraman shooting a Foxcatcher propaganda piece instructs Dave to name du Pont as his mentor on screen. With hardly any other resources at his disposal other than his own, Ruffalo conveys a taught mixture of self-loathing, disgust, and offense; the inner conflict between his integrity and his job security tears him up. In the other, he succors Mark after the younger brother – cocaine-addled and overweight – loses a preliminary match in the Olympic trials. Bingeing on the lavish food du Pont’s sent to his room, smashing his head in self-recrimination, Mark’s in meltdown. The way Ruffalo caresses Tatum’s feverish body and soothes him with professions of fraternal love strikes you at your core. The truth of their relationship is clear, after all. Dave’s not out to stifle his brother, just the opposite. That’s what du Pont’s about, in the end – the sinister step-brother and would-be father who delusions of grandeur collapse all around him. As in Capote, the manipulative relationship at the core grows in disturbing degree. Miller lets the American symbolism fade out of view in the film’s second half, which is wise. He’s established the noxious mix of money, power, and violence at the heart of the nation – all that’s left is to see it play out. But the way it plays out is mostly a commentary on du Pont’s clouded mind. He sees the brothers’ embrace – like the Greek wrestlers of ancient days, like a modern Romulus and Remus – and he strikes. It is all a mystery, and Miller gives us no escape or explanation. Foxcatcher is the most unsettling movie I’ve seen all year.

 Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain.

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