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Cannes Review: Bennett Miller's 'Foxcatcher' Starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo & Vanessa Redgrave

Reviews
by Jessica Kiang
May 19, 2014 6:31 AM
9 Comments
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Director Bennett Miller has already proven that he has the uncanny ability to spin exquisite, immersive, intelligent stories from material that on paper might not seem so appealing—we’ll still never quite get to the bottom of why “Moneyball,” a film about baseball sabermetrics should be so rich and engaging. But with "Foxcatcher," he has outdone himself, turning his uniquely meticulous eye to a tiny story in a totally rarefied, specific environment and through whatever alchemy he has perfected, created something so universal and resonant that it feels epic, sprawling, almost ancient in its mythic overtones. “Foxcatcher” is an enormous film. 

Unfolding slowly and deliberately, in rubber-floored gyms, ugly hotel rooms and chintzy overdecorated parlors and trophy rooms, the film tells the true story of a peculiar, almost absurdist crime: the killing of an ex-Olympic wrestler by a scion of the fabulously wealthy du Pont family. But really "Foxcatcher," filmed from a brilliantly economical (even at 134 minutes) script by Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye, is about much grander themes of familial rivalry and ambition, of talent and jealousy and egotism, and of how much we despise the weaknesses in others that we fear we ourselves display. It’s so many things at once and yet none of them is underdeveloped, and as thematically multi-stranded as the story is, tonally and narratively it is totally singleminded: an elegy for the destructive power of the myth of American exceptionalism, and how lofty ideals can become corrupted and perverted by the agendas of subconsciously terrified little men.

John du Pont (Steve Carell, and it still doesn’t seem possible that that actually was Steve Carell) summons Mark Schulz (Channing Tatum), the younger, overshadowed brother of Olympian Dave Schulz (Mark Ruffalo), and offers him, seemingly, everything he could ever have asked for (in a brilliantly skewering detail, one of the things he asks for is the paltry salary of $25,000, which he can’t believe he receives—wrestling is not a glamor sport of endorsement deals and Hollywood wives). How does du Pont know which buttons to press? One of the cleverest aspects of the film is the clarity and yet subtlety with which the parallels between the two  are drawn: both live in the shadow of a family member, (if you notice, almost every scene involving du Pont’s grand dame mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, is immediately followed by one involving Mark’s brother, her death also foreshadowing his). And both men have a desperate desire to be great, to be the best at something, yet neither really has the resources to achieve that by talent alone. And so Mark accepts the offer to move in and start training for the World championships at du Pont’s purpose-built Foxcatcher facility. But soon after his initial success, their relationship starts to take on a much darker tone, with Mark essentially becoming a kind of emotional rent boy. Du Pont’s world-class boundary issues actually result in him destroying the thing he loves as he introduces dissipation into Mark's lifestyle, and that’s when du Pont turns on him and, in an act that can only be seen by Mark as a betrayal by both men, hires Dave to come on board. As "Assistant Coach," that is, as du Pont's delusional idea that he has any wrestling expertise to offer results in more than one desperately pathetic display of ineptitude, in the face of everyone's complicity in maintaining his illusions.  

Marked by moments of levity and humor (the cocaine scene in the helicopter when both du Pont and Mark repeat “Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist” over and over is hilarious, but also hilariously pointed), actually the film is overall extremely somber, a slow, inexorable uncoiling toward a tragedy we can feel in our bones is going to happen practically from the first shot of du Pont. Character is destiny, after all, and the character of du Pont is one of the most most complex and fascinatingly fucked up we’ve ever seen on screen. Carell is the revelation that everyone has suggested in the role, and then some: vocally, physically and psychologically he is not just unrecognizable, he simply is a different man, and a man whose tragic flaw (cursed to wield great wealth and influence with no shred of greatness to justify it) is the entire story of this film. It’s seldom we’ve ever witnessed such a total erasure of self in a role, and it deserves to win him everything, everywhere. 

But he’s amply supported by the rest of the cast, particularly Channing Tatum who turns his lunkishness to brilliantly doleful purpose and invests his role with an interiority of loneliness and self-loathing that by the end we could even see coming across even in his style of wrestling. Which, incidentally deserves praise all its own—we’re no experts in the sport, but Tatum and Ruffalo both totally convinced in those fight scenes, especially the extended one of the two of them training that begins the film and that tells you, in course of a session that goes from cordial to aggressive, everything you need to know about their relationship. Ruffalo’s own part is smaller, but he’s as committed as if he were the star, and a single scene in which he is the uncomfortable subject of an interview about du Pont is a masterclass all by itself. Redgrave arguably does even more with even less; she really only speaks in a single scene, but when she does it’s with a fascinatingly contradictory mix of maternal instinct and disdain for her son, and even, at one moment, a flash of what might be fear. 

We’ve been anticipating "Foxcatcher" since forever, it feels like, and our expectations were sky high, and yet in almost every way this towering film exceeds them. The sweeping intelligence of Miller’s enormous movie feels like it will be feeding our minds for days to come and as the best of his films, it is also simply one of the best dramas dissecting contemporary America (despite its period) that we've ever seen. Like the fox hunts that are a recurring motif or like the munitions with which the du Pont family first made their fortune, the arc of this story tends inexorably towards senseless death, but Miller has taken this unthinkable crime and carefully, precisely, dazzlingly, thought it out. [A]

Browse through all our coverage of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival by clicking here.



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9 Comments

  • kboc923 | May 28, 2014 11:55 PMReply

    I saw a screener last year of this film and it really was awesome. Steve Carell is amazing

  • Jck | May 19, 2014 11:04 PMReply

    I can't get past Steve Carell"s bad make up, they really should have just got somebody else to play the part.

  • MENYC | May 19, 2014 5:43 PMReply

    Yes, JNYC,
    Maybe you ought to see the film before you disagree with someones comments so vomitously,
    Having seen it, I can say that she's right on point, and you sound like the one with "issues…"

  • JNYC | May 19, 2014 3:02 PMReply

    ".. the destructive power of the myth of American exceptionalism, and how lofty ideals can become corrupted and perverted by the agendas of subconsciously terrified little men."

    Not only does Jessica Kiang sound insufferable with such an obnoxious statement, she apparently has stratospheric daddy issues; the type of woman who'll insist every man is a pedophile and every woman is a victim.. What a stupid little woman.

  • me | May 19, 2014 5:41 PM

    JNCY,
    Yikes, taking things a little personally are you?
    We can only imagine what nasty little women issues you have, you troll.

  • Tyler | May 19, 2014 2:12 PMReply

    I wasn't over the moon for Moneyball and Capote like everyone else was, but this does look interesting. Ruffalo is one of the most under-appreciated actors working today and it looks like he is due for some major recognition here.

  • DG | May 19, 2014 1:29 PMReply

    Not surprised, this seemed like gold since day one and the trailer that was out for like a day last year was fantastic. Can't wait!

  • Momo | May 19, 2014 12:50 PMReply

    Can't wait!

  • josh | May 19, 2014 6:56 AMReply

    Oh God I'm magnificently excited for this now.

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