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Review: Foxcatcher

December 31, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Foxcatcher Poster

Recounting the true story of brothers and Olympic wrestlers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), and their uneasy partnership with eccentric millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell), Foxcatcher offers a compelling look at the dark side of the American Dream, built around three superb performances.

When we first meet Mark Schultz, there is something almost mundane about his life.  He lives alone and spends his days tirelessly training at the local gym with his brother, determined to defend his medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

When he gets a mysterious phone call from John du Pont, who has become obsessed with the sport of wrestling and insists on funding his career, Mark takes up residence at the Foxcatcher Farm, an isolated property owned by his reclusive mother Jean du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave), to complete his training.

Channing Tatum delivers his best and most physically demanding work yet, with a career defining turn that allows him to finally explore his full dramatic range.  Wearing a prosthetic nose, Steve Carell undergoes a fascinating reinvention right before our eyes, hauntingly portraying the underlying coldness and increasing mental illness of the character.  Mark Ruffalo delivers what is arguably the best performance of the three, masterfully portraying this man who made profound sacrifices for his brother, with a sense of quiet heartbreak.

Director Bennet Miller uses this true story to touch on themes of competition and extreme masculinity, exploring how the constant strive to push yourself into perfection can lead to money and fame, but also isolation and loneliness.  At heart, Foxcatcher is about the darkest aspects of the elusive American Dream, leading to dangerously frayed mental health, and the fact that this actually happened just makes the proceedings all the more chilling.

The film is almost unnervingly quiet, moving at a deliberate pace that unfolds with increasing tension just beneath the surface, which only fully explodes near the end of the 134 minute running time.  At times, the pacing is a little too slow moving, with some scenes where not much actually seems to be happening.  But this is all done in service of building an atmosphere that feels uneasy right from the beginning, and we find ourselves invested in these multilayered characters.

There are some stirring sequences here, including a memorable and appropriately disturbing scene where Mark is physically at one of his lowest points, and has to rapidly drop weight within a matter of hours in order to qualify.  The dialogue rarely raises above a certain level, and is sometimes shown with music playing over the words being said.  Because of this, every sound that we do hear explodes with expectedly unsettling effect, from Mark retching over the toilet to the inevitable gunshots.

The scenes of wrestling are often used in a poetic way, with much of the relationship between these two brothers revealed through their primal physical interactions.  From the haunting imagery to the tightly calculated editing, Foxcatcher is an impressive exercise in feeling and control, bolstered by three of the best performances of the year.

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