Review: Foxcatcher

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Foxcatcher

If you're rich, they call you eccentric instead of crazy.

John du Pont was plenty rich enough to be called eccentric. An heir to the du Pont family fortune, he had wealth almost beyond imagination, a fortune so intimidating that those who knew him -- especially anyone dependant on his philanthropy -- didn't dare call him insane.

Foxcatcher, however, dares calls him insane; it pulls no punches in its depiction of his erratic behavior and sometimes terrifying mental instability. With a brilliant performance by Steve Carell as John (by far the best of Carell's career), the film paints him as a deeply troubled man whose wealth couldn't buy him self esteem or sanity.

Based on a true story, Foxcatcher focuses on John's interest in wrestling. (He led an eclectic life; he also was a philatelist and accomplished ornithologist.) As the film opens in 1987, John recruits Olympic wrestling gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) for a wrestling team he hopes will compete in the 1988 Olympics. The team, named Foxcatcher after the du Pont family's thoroughbred racing stable, trains at a state-of-the-art facility John built on his Pennsylvania farm.

No longer a wrestling celebrity and living in poverty in Wisconsin, Mark jumps at John's lucrative offer. He sees it as a chance to return to the spotlight -- and to escape the shadow of his more famous older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic wrestling gold medalist. (John also tries to recruit Dave, who refuses his offer.)

John has little experience in wrestling and none in coaching. But he declares himself head coach of the team, hoping to win the wrestling world's respect and, more importantly, the approval of his ever-critical mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave). Given John's inexperience, Mark handles most of the actual coaching duties. He's soon aware of John's mental health problems, but sees him as a father figure and well-meaning benefactor.

But John's bizarre behavior, constant need for approval and psychological game-playing soon take a toll on Mark. To make matters worse, John is also fixated on Dave. When he finally recruits Dave with an offer he can't refuse (money is a persuasive argument), he inflames the brothers' sibling rivalry, all but destroying their familial bond.

Driving Foxcatcher are the rocky relationships between the three men as the team prepares for competition. Their interplay is a furious mix of jealousy, paranoia, tenuous allegiances and betrayals. Foxcatcher is far more than just a sports movie; the wrestling is merely a grunting, sweaty backdrop as the film explores the characters' sometimes insane (in John's case, literally) pursuit of power and respect.

Despite their battles, the three men have much in common and are totally codependent. Mark and John desperately seek validation from others to compensate for their insecurity and loneliness. Dave is far happier and more confident than the others (their jealousy of him is painfully obvious), but even he can't resist the allure of Olympic gold and stardom. And each man knows all too well that the team's fortune -- and thus his fortune -- depends on the other two. John is a menacing maniac, but Mark and Dave know he's the money man. The brothers' surly insubordination infuriates John, but he knows he'll never coach (or claim to coach) a winning team without them.

Best known for his comedy, Carell proves his dramatic bona fides in Foxcatcher. He's a creepy but pathetic soul as John du Pont, almost unrecognizable in prosthetics and heavy makeup. John's violent outbursts can be terrifying (in one scene, he fires a gun during a team practice), but his quiet, blank stares are even more unnerving. Foxcatcher barely hints at John's past, but the film doesn't really need to spell out the details. With a terrified look or a startling moment of rage, Carell makes it clear that John has lived most of his life feeling powerless, lonely and often unable to cope with reality. (A couple of brief scenes with his mean and controlling mother tell us most of what we need to know.)

Most of Foxcatcher's buzz has been about Carell's chill-inducing portrayal, but Tatum is also terrific as Mark. He spends most of the film in complete frustration, doing a slow burn as he desperately seeks his former glory. Tatum is admirably restrained; what could have been a superficial performance, all beefcake and bravado, is instead entirely fragile. Mark is physically intimidating but emotionally decrepit, and Tatum makes us painfully aware of the latter when he stumbles through a halting, halfhearted speech or hides from the world when life doesn't go his way.

Thanks to Carell, Tatum and their well-drawn characters (Ruffalo is also great as Dave), Foxcatcher is an entertaining and mostly well-crafted movie. The leads' energy and intensity overcomes the film's languid pace, although some scenes drag a bit and others feel like filler. But while Foxcatcher is entertaining, don't expect a crowd-pleasing movie about overcoming adversity and winning the gold despite the odds. Like the real-life events it's based on, Foxcatcher is ultimately tragic.

(If you're not familiar with the story, do yourself a favor and don't research it before seeing the film. The less you know, the more powerful Foxcatcher may be. Much of its impact -- that is, what it says about the horror of mental illness -- lies in the characters' fates.)