September 29, 2014

VIFF 2014: 'Foxcatcher' Wrestles with Shadows

Mark Ruffalo | Foxcatcher

Amateur wrestling is a cold, visceral yet pure and artful sport. Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) uses wrestling to craft a precise, slow burn psychological drama. Foxcatcher is so smartly executed with such a thoughtfully careful eye for its characters with an eerie poeticism. Everything unfolds precisely as we follow real-life wrestling champion brothers and Olympic gold medalists Mark and Dave Shultz, perfectly cast and portrayed by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, in their journey towards American glory.

The film closely follows Tatum's Mark as he struggles to live life outside of the ring and make his own mark out of his brother's long shadow. Early on, we meet the Machiavellian yet uncharismatic John du Pont, played by an unrecognizable and transformative Steve Carell. The comedian sheds any ounce of outward humour as he captures all the egomaniacal creepiness, entitlement, delusion, and eccentricities of the real-life heir and magnate. He is full of his own dark, mysterious demons and sense of grandeur. Du Pont knows exactly how to manipulate and motivate his team of wrestlers until he slowly breaks down under the pressure of his own twisted ego over the watchful eye of his reclusive mother (Vanessa Redgrave).

The economical script from Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye is bare but precise in its unfolding of events leading up to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Seoul. Miller frames the sad, tragic tale through scenes of wrestling matches and training sequences with a Pennsylvanian backdrop on du Pont's massive estate and farm. The film is layered with themes of American exceptionalism and the destructive force of power as du Pont's quest for glory leads him to adopt and become a father figure to his own wrestling team. He desperately wants to feed his own sense of greatness through others. He sees something pure in American amateur wrestling and an ability to make his own family filled with boy athletes looking for direction.

Despite a slow and sombre tone throughout, there is a surprising streak of very dark humour throughout, particularly executed through well-timed reactions from Ruffalo and Carell. It's disturbing how we react to the dramatic irony within the chaos and a sense of dread. The film is a remarkable combination of engrossing performances. Tatum is on point and sympathetic with a disruptive streak as a lost soul full of pain, anger, jealousy, hurt, and talent looking for a guidance just as Ruffalo is fatherly and compassionate as his big brother. Tension is built through acting, subtle editing, and mannered direction. All this and scenes of dramatic wrestling are used so artfully as a symbol of purity and American idealism.

Foxcatcher is a meticulously made, true life story about men and the purity of wrestling. Miller's film is haunting in its storytelling of brothers, ambition, and sport. Tatum, Ruffalo, and Carell are a powerhouse trio of acting performances, all completely distinct and offering different degrees of viscerally frightening or compelling portraits. Its quiet intensity and explosive moments of real-life drama heighten the heavy thematic undertones. The film is mostly small and quiet with bursts of rage and strange violence as it uses athleticism to execute its universal ideals.

Foxcatcher screened at the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival.

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