Reviews for Friends #17: Foxcatcher

A chilling two hours

There is something deliciously thrilling, naughty even, when comedians go dark. Actors you and the rest of the world once had pinned as goofy clowns shock us all with a turn as a murderous psychopath. In the vein of Robin Williams in One Hour Photo, comedy star Steve Carell has pulled such a thing off, unnervingly well, in the inspired by true life role of millionaire oddball, John du Pont.

On going into the cinema I had no clue who on earth John du Pont was, and had never heard of the Schultz brothers – I’d recommend anyone else going into this film blind to keep away from Google.

Du Pont is a tragicomic figure. Beak nosed, stooped and pale, with a nasal speech that stops and starts like some kind of Morse Code. It is clear to the viewer that something devastating is going to happen in this film from the outset. Carell simmers under a blank, pouty expression. Threatening to blow in virtually all of his scenes. But I certainly wasn’t prepared for the outcome.

Yes, it’s about sports. Wrestling, at that. But don’t let that put you off – much like in Director Bennett Miller’s previous sports biopic Moneyball, Foxcatcher is less about sports and more of a psychological thriller steeped in layers and layers of American class politics. Miller’s dramatisation of these famous events wrestles with the heavyweight subjects of power, wealth, ego, blood and prejudice.

Brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), successful American professional wrestlers (Dave, the older brother, more so) are living a pretty grey existence in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Dave, getting by with his wife and young family – trying to give them the stability he and Mark never had as children. Mark, isolated in a dingy flat. The film is full of these spaces – cold, dank dressing rooms. The grand but desolate Valley Forge. The vast Du Pont family country estate. And it is in these quiet spaces that our characters find themselves individually coming to terms with their own demons. Poverty and struggle. Ambition. The suffocating weight of ancestry.

In the opening scenes we see the brothers training together in a downtrodden sports hall. Ducking, diving, fumbling - much of the film plays out like this, with movement taking centre stage. The dialogue is sparse. In walks John du Pont, a wrestling coach of dubious credibility that no one bothers to check - perhaps overwhelmed by his wealth. He mysteriously whisks Mark to a meeting at his Pennsylvania estate by helicopter, a showman-like action at odds with the man who is revealed - creeping, small, papery skinned. It transpires du Pont has privately funded wrestling team – Foxcatcher – and wants to get the Schultz brothers on board in preparation for the Seoul Olympics. Mark is immediately, unquestioningly seduced and days later is living in his own chalet on the estate. Later in the film we see him, rather disturbingly, crouched at du Pont’s feet like a pet. Tousling on the floor in the middle of the night. Snorting cocaine together. A tinge of the homoerotic which never quite materialises.

Despite Mark’s protestation to du Pont that ‘you can’t buy Dave’, his brother is eventually drawn in out of a desire for family security, moving with his wife and family to the estate. As the film plays out, du Pont maliciously creates cracks in the brothers’ relationship, playing Mark in particular. Brooding and childlike, he is vulnerable to du Pont, leaving his insecurities open to cruel manipulation. The building tension is cleverly interjected with the reassuring brotherly presence of Dave. But as relationships deteriorate the viewer has nowhere to turn for comfort.

Du Pont wants to build his own legend, but instead he builds a monster.

A powerful film matched by powerful performances from all.

 
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