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Foxcatcher

On January 26th of 1996, John du Pont — scion of the American du Pont dynasty — went to the house of Dave Schultz and fatally shot him on his driveway. In front of Schultz’ wife, no less. Du Pont then locked himself inside his mansion, negotiating with police over the phone. When police cut the power, du Pont went outside to fix the heater and he was captured after a two-day standoff. Du Pont was convicted of third-degree murder on account of “mental illness” and sentenced to 13-30 years’ incarceration. Schultz’ widow filed a wrongful death lawsuit against du Pont and accepted an undisclosed settlement. Four years ago this December, du Pont died in prison.

Doesn’t that sound like an interesting story? Too bad! That’s not the one we’re getting tonight.

Though Foxcatcher does portray that incident briefly (very briefly) in its closing minutes, the movie is much more interested in the prelude to Schultz’ murder. Who exactly were these two men, and what drove du Pont to kill Schultz? Wouldn’t you like to know. Hell, I’ve seen the movie and I’d still like to know.

Foxcatcher tells the story of Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a champion wrestler who won an Olympic gold medal in 1984, three years prior. His older brother (that would be Dave Schultz, here played by Mark Ruffalo) is also a champion wrestler who won an Olympic gold medal that very same year. Together, the two of them work as assistant wrestling coaches until Mark gets a call from the office of John du Pont (played here by Steve Carell).

See, du Pont wants to coach the next gold medalist Olympic wrestling team for the 1988 games in Seoul. To that end, he offers Mark an exorbitant amount of money and the privilege to choose his own team if Mark will come train at the du Ponts’ Foxcatcher Farm just outside Valley Forge. Mark takes the offer and we’re off to the games.

Let’s start with the positive aspects: Every single wrestling scene in this movie kicks ass. The camerawork, the score, the editing, the choreography, the athletic ability on display… everything about these scenes is captivating to watch and moves the story along beautifully. Of course, I’m sure it helped that Mark Schultz himself was on hand as a wrestling consultant and trained Channing Tatum personally.

(Side note: Oregonian pride compels me to point out that Schultz currently resides in Medford. Also, co-screenwriter E. Max Frye is a Eugene native.)

Speaking of which, easily my favorite wrestling scene is the one at the very beginning, when Mark and Dave are training together. The two of them go seamlessly from simple exercises to basic drills to full-on matches to the point where they start drawing blood. Yet there’s an undercurrent of love and admiration in everything they do, and their unspoken communication is effortless. Absolutely every scene between these two brothers is more of the same. It’s amazing to watch.

A lot of that is due to Mark Ruffalo, who’s truly the greatest actor in this picture. In fact, this may well be the best performance Ruffalo has ever given, and I know that’s saying a lot. It helps that Dave is the true linchpin of this movie, in that he’s the only one objective enough and smart enough to realize everything that’s going on. Moreover, he’s the only lead character whose motives are pure, driven entirely by concern for Mark without regard for his own ego or bank account. Yet Dave has a wife (Nancy, played by Sienna Miller) and kids of his own to care for as well, and his concern for their stability proves to create a very dangerous blind spot. Also, it helps a lot that Ruffalo pumped himself up to an absurd degree for this role. A few more pounds of muscle and he could play the Hulk without CGI, I’m not even kidding.

On the other hand, we have Steve Carell. The guy’s been picking up a lot of acclaim for his work here, but I’m sorry, I’m not seeing it. It’s so hard to see the guy emoting under ten pounds of makeup, and it’s hard to take him seriously as an eccentric loner when the makeup is doing all the work for him. Furthermore, it’s extremely difficult to get inside of du Pont’s head when he’s got that mask-like expression and monotone voice through pretty much the entire movie. And if we’re not trying to figure out why a man who has everything would kill a man in cold blood for no apparent reason, then why are we here?

Well, okay, there are a few possible reasons given. They’re just not presented in a way that’s the least bit interesting, and none of them congeal into any kind of comprehensible explanation. One example is du Pont’s relationship with his mother (Jean du Pont, played by Vanessa Redgrave), who favors equestrian sports and thinks of wrestling as “low,” for whatever reason. So basically, John is a guy with mommy issues who’s spending thousands of his family’s dollars to prove that his hobby is totally way more awesome than some stupid old horsies. It’s a start, but still not enough.

As time passes, we eventually learn that John wants his friends to call him “Eagle” or “Golden Eagle.” It’s part of an effort to make him look more patriotic, which is another reason why he wants to be the head coach of America’s next Olympic medalist wrestling team. It doesn’t even matter that du Pont is a weakling with virtually no wrestling skills or leadership abilities, he wants to be known as a father figure and a mentor to the team of Olympians that are training on his property. Like he can buy respect and be treated like one of the great athletes and American role models because they’re on his payroll.

It’s a fascinating idea. But again, it’s deflated because that inhibitive makeup makes it so much harder to sympathize with the character, get inside his head, and see where he’s coming from. Oh, and also: What does any of this have to do with why he killed a man in cold blood?

Another crucial factor is Tatum’s performance as Mark. As an individual character, Mark is basically a caveman. He doesn’t say much or read much, and he doesn’t seem to think much either. He’s just a big sack of muscle, nothing more or less. It doesn’t sound like much of a character (and he isn’t, but we’ll get back to that), yet it’s a physically exhausting role that Tatum dove into without any reservation. It’s astounding how far Tatum pushed himself to play a world-class athlete, and it’s worth repeating that his scenes with Ruffalo are pure gold.

Yet there are certain aspects of the character and Tatum’s portrayal that make subtle yet game-changing differences. In the movie, Mark seems very eager to accept du Pont as a father figure, until du Pont inflates the wrestler’s ego to the point where Mark claims that he doesn’t need anyone else. This despite the fact that the guy can barely read without someone to coach him. This makes for a character arc we’ve already seen umpteen too many times.

It’s also very different from a recent interview with The Oregonian, in which Mark Schultz claims that he never saw du Pont as any kind of mentor. In fact, Mark put up with du Pont’s crap entirely because of the money and eventually left the sport of wrestling because he couldn’t bring himself to continue stooping for a man who wanted to stand on Mark’s shoulders and think of himself as tall. Shades of that dynamic are visible in retrospect, but so many of the thoughts and emotions between characters go unspoken that there’s a lot of room for misinterpretation. Moreover, if the Mark of the movie had been smart enough to know from the beginning that he was being played and he was able to tell Dave exactly what du Pont is getting out of this, that would have made for a far more interesting movie.

Yet Mark never comes off as a man who’s being tortured by his ethical dilemmas and his choice to debase himself for money. Instead, he looks like some immature meathead who acts entirely according to his ego and his impulses. That’s not nearly as sympathetic or compelling to watch.

On a final note, I have to address the pacing. I realize that the pacing is deliberately slow, made to give the actors enough room to convey their thoughts and emotions without words. It also makes for some satisfying tension as we wait for the characters to sucker-punch each other. On the other hand, the pacing can seem interminably dull, making this two-hour movie feel at least half an hour longer. Especially if you’re waiting (as I was) for the Schultz murder to finally happen.

Oh, and one more thing about the pacing: The movie cuts pretty much immediately from Mark Schultz’ Olympic loss in the summer of 1988 to Dave Schultz’ murder in January, 1996. So what happened while Dave was living and working at Foxcatcher for seven and a half years? What was du Pont doing for the better part of a decade before he suddenly up and killed a man? Seems like a rather crucial part of the puzzle to overlook, don’t you think?

Though Foxcatcher is a technically proficient movie, it’s probably the least interesting version of this story that could possibly have been told. The highly conflicted nature of Mark’s character was squandered, and Steve Carell’s character was sadly ruined by that thick mask of prosthetics he had to wear. I love the guy and I wish him well, but I’m sorry to say that his performance here is overrated.

On the other hand, Mark Ruffalo is at the top of his game, his scenes with Tatum are extraordinary, and the wrestling scenes are all crackerjack. That’s enough to keep the movie watchable, at least. It’s definitely worth seeing if you want to keep up with awards favorites, but I could take it or leave it otherwise.

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