Friday, September 12, 2014

TIFF'14: Foxcatcher: Sibling Rivalries and Wrestling With Demons

by Odienator
(click here for all TIFF 2014 reviews)

***(out of four)

Since its debut at Cannes, Foxcatcher has been earning raves for Steve Carrell's performance as John du Pont, ornithologist, conchologist, philanthrophist and murderer. du Pont was convicted of murder in the third degree for shooting Olympic-medal winning wrestler Dave Schultz. Dave had been coaching Olympic candidates, including his brother Mark, at du Pont's estate, Foxcatcher. du Pont had been ruled mentally ill at the time of the shooting, but fit to stand trial and be sentenced.

The praise for Carrell stems from an erroneous notion that this is his first foray into drama. Comedian Carrell has already proven himself adept at the more respectable dramatic arts in films like Little Miss Sunshine and Dan in Real Life. He is an actor who can break your funny bone and your heart, sometimes simultaneously, as in the bicycle chase sequence of The 40-Year Old Virgin. Carrell will certainly be nominated for an Oscar for Foxcatcher--his character practically wears a huge scarlett letter O bestowed by the Hester Prynne Society of Oscar Bait Performances--but I fear his nod will overshadow a far better supporting performance. 

As du Pont, Carrell wears a huge, though accurate, prosthetic nose that resembles a beak. Director Bennett Miller belabors the hawk-like visual comparison by often shooting Carrell in profile. du Pont holds his head in an almost stereotypical "turning up my nose" posture and speaks in a deliberate manner that can't help but draw attention to itself for being so weird. (Imagine Tim Curry saying "I see you shiver with antici-pation" in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, then apply that cadence to almost every line of dialogue.) This may be completely accurate, but it never feels like anything but a performance.

Miller gets more lived-in performances from his wrestling brothers, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). There's a beautiful scene of physicality between Dave, the more experienced wrestler, and Mark that wordlessly sums up the sibling rivalry between brothers better than any scene I can recall. As the two maneuver through a wrestling sparring match, Mark's actions indicate more than a hint of jealousy. Dave takes it in stride.

Mark is summoned to Foxcatcher by du Pont. He tells Mark that he is a wrestling enthusiast who wants to coach Olympic wrestling candidates at his estate. du Pont speaks in jingoistic terms, talking about freedom and America and strength, seducing Mark with the notion that he may be able to stand for something while breaking out from under his brother's shadow. Carrell and Tatum play the scene well; it's the rare moment when we're allowed to accept du Pont's eccentricities as realistic character traits. Tatum helps immensely in his scenes with Carrell by removing all the confidence from Mark Schultz. His face is a perpetually tight rigor mortis of insecurity, perhaps even tighter than the wrestler's muscles that brought him success in the circle. du Pont is clearly feeding Mark bullshit, but it's the bullshit he's been starving to hear.

Once recruited, du Pont asks Mark to call him "Golden Eagle" (again with the bird comparisons) and to participate in a documentary about du Pont's greatness that is clearly biased and manipulated by its subject. du Pont also asks Mark to bring brother Dave along to help coach the team he's building, but to Mark's relief, Dave doesn't want to relocate his wife (Sienna Miller) and his kids. du Pont is stunned that Dave cannot be bought, another rare moment when Carrell breaks through artifice. Eventually, Dave comes on as the coach, driving a bigger wedge between the brothers.

The relationship between the Schultzes is the true power of Foxcatcher. Ruffalo and Tatum are fantastic together, completely believable as siblings. Ruffalo, in particular, handles the role of older brother, mentor and disciplinarian with heartbreaking accuracy--this is the true Oscar-worthy supporting performance in Foxcatcher--and his quiet grace makes the film's violent outcome all the more horrific.

Miller does a great job handling the wrestling sequences. They're detailed enough to satisfy fans of the sport without overwhelming those who know nothing about it. "There's never a good angle with wrestlers," complains the documentarian who is shooting du Pont's feature, but Miller finds a few. What he doesn't find is an access point for the audience to relate to du Pont. We're distanced from his demons and he remains a cipher.

I had the same problem with Capote. Like Carrell, Philip Seymour Hoffman gets maximum value from all the actorly tricks in his arsenal, but through no fault of their own, Truman Capote and John du Pont are devices surrounded by deeper characterizations. In Foxcatcher, du Pont is the straw that stirs the drink, and while he's an integral part in the enjoyment, nobody ever remembers the straw.

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