FOXCATCHER Review: Surface Tension
You can’t have lived your life in the greater Delaware Valley in the last century and not know the name du Pont. The family, which emigrated to the area in 1800, has a rich and powerful history, including involvement in the Louisiana Purchase, membership in state and federal government, and, at one time (and for a long time), being the largest private employer in the state of Delaware. With heritage measured in centuries and a fortune measured in a string of endless zeros, the family has always been ripe for scandal, and it has had its share of them. None, though, were as shocking, or devastating, as a murder that took place on Foxcatcher Farms in 1996.
The du Pont at the center of Bennett Miller‘s Foxcatcher is John E. du Pont (Steve Carrell), heir to the family fortune, philanthropist, published ornithologist, and rabid amateur wrestling enthusiast. When du Pont decides he wants to open a wrestling training facility on his estate, with the hopes of fielding a team of wrestlers to send to the 1988 Olympics, his first recruit is Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), winner of Olympic wrestling gold in 1984 and younger brother of Dave (Mark Ruffalo), a fellow Olympic wrestling gold medal winner and much-sought-after wrestling coach.
As the program grows and succeeds under Mark’s leadership, he and du Pont begin to form a strong emotional bond. But when the affluent du Pont lifestyle takes its toll on the young wrestler, the successful program begins to falter. When that happens, du Pont, who suffers not failure, brings in Dave, creating a tenuous alpha-male triangle consisting of the financier/enthusiast, the fallen hero, and the legendary salvation. This triangle eventually collapses under its own weight with devastating consequences: the murder of Dave Schultz by John du Pont.
There are two scenes early in Foxcatcher that are emblematic of the film’s core, and ultimately fatal, problem.
The first scene involves Mark Schultz speaking to an auditorium of school children about being a champion and so forth, and when the school secretary writes his check, she mistakes him for Dave. It’s an honest error; Mark was a last-minute replacement for Dave and the secretary might not have known that and might not follow amateur wrestling. But it still stings Mark in a way that suggests he is tired of living in his brother’s shadow.
The other scene takes place when Mark is on a helicopter, en route to Foxcatcher Farms to meet du Pont for the first time. One of du Pont’s handlers tells Mark that du Pont wanted to fly the wrestler personally, but he had been summoned by the Newtown Square (PA) police for “tactical support.” (There is a later scene where du Pont is on a pistol range taking practice with local police.)
Both scenes suggest the two men at the heart of the film have deep psychological issues. Not only are those issues never addressed, they are never explored nor even substantiated.
Mark’s sense of inferiority to Dave simply doesn’t make sense, at least on the surface. Each is a gold medalist in his own right. And where Dave was at the end of his career, Mark was in the prime of his and already training for 1988 before du Pont entered the picture. Yet there is no indication as to why Mark feels this way, which drives why he clings to du Pont so tightly.
For du Pont, the issues are greater in number and complexity, yet no more considered or revealed. His attraction to law enforcement – such as it is – appears to be mentioned so as to make a weak connection to his use of a gun to kill Dave. In fact, it feels like the combination of his penchant for police (who use guns), his unexplained yet overt patriotism (because patriots like guns), and his tenuous relationship with his oppressive mother (because guys with mommy issues are angry) all lead to his final act. Only they don’t; they merely act as symptoms to an illness that is entirely ignored. (Jean du Pont, John’s mother, is played by Vanessa Redgrave.)
And it’s not as if Miller didn’t have enough time – he had 134 minutes of film. But rather than use it to delve into the psyches of his characters and how those psyches meshed and clashed over the course of their relationships, the director takes an inordinate amount of time fawning over everything in the frame of his lens. There isn’t a lingering establishing shot the director doesn’t love, but each extended look at things like the affluence of the du Pont residence is done to the detriment of the story.
It’s also done to the detriment of the actors, who all do great work here. Ruffalo is in terrific form here as the family man tasked with managing relationships between (and with) his brother and du Pont, and Tatum delivers his best performance to date as the simple but easily influenced young wrestler looking to become something greater. But it’s Carrell who is transformative as the obsessive, controlling du Pont heir. It’s a Carrell who showed flashes of dramatic potential in last year’s The Way Way Back, but this performance – it’s other-worldly.
A film, however, is more than stellar just acting, and while the trailers promised so much more, stellar acting is all that was delivered. Foxcatcher will go down as my greatest disappointment of 2014. It is a psychological drama completely devoid of psychological exploration, and buoyed only by the might of the three leads.