Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscars 2014: Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher (U.S., 2014) directed by Bennett Miller, 133 minutes

Five Oscar Nominations
Actor in a Leading Role (Steve Carell)
Actor in a Supporting Role (Mark Ruffalo)
Makeup and Hairstyling
Writing (Original Screenplay)

I saw this film at TIFF last year. The husband chose it and it proved to be my favourite film of the festival.

Foxcatcher, the name of the hereditary Du Pont estate where most of the film's action takes place, is oddly prescient. Based on a traditional upper crust sport of tracking down and killing innocent foxes with hounds, it seems an apt metaphor for the near destruction of two brothers by a delusional billionaire intent on entrapping the two men.

I knew nothing of this film or the true crime story behind it but it completely knocked me out when I saw it. It is the story of two brothers, Mark and David Schulz (played amazingly well by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), Olympic gold winning wrestlers, who become ensnared with a disturbed Du Pont heir named John E. Du Pont (Steve Carell) worth billions. The Du Ponts are ranked the 13th richest family in America with an estimated wealth of $15 billon. Du Pont had a desire to sire an Olympic winning wrestling team for the U.S. and tapped the two men to help build this dream.

Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and Mark Schultz (the sadly overlooked Channing Tatum) both won the gold at the 1984 Olympics but Mark's life, as the film starts in 1987, is a lonely ritual of training in his brother's gym and reliving old glories that few care to remember or acknowledge. He has no parents and Dave seems to be his only family and contact.

John Du Pont invites Mark to live on his estate and to train for the U.S. team preparing for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Du Pont also wants Dave to come but Dave wisely demurs refusing to uproot his family.

Du Pont is clearly disturbed. My friends, eccentric doesn't begin to describe it. He loves guns and artillery (we see him trying to purchase a tank at one point in the film) and can be quite aggressive when seemingly provoked - but he is initially very generous and paternal with Mark who clearly seeks a mentor and a human connection through the older man. Du Pont is a frustrated middle-aged athlete whose mother (Vanessa Redgrave), with whom he lives, discouraged his interest in wrestling which she describes as a "low" sport as opposed to more exalted, equestrian pursuits that are her passion.

Eventually Dave et famille is coaxed into joining Mark on the estate to build "Team Foxcatcher", named so for the Du Pont estate, for the Olympics and train the U.S. team. Mark unknowingly plays a dangerous game trying to protect his younger brother from Du Pont's increasingly erratic behavior but ultimately pays the price for defying Du Pont.

I hate to point the finger at mommy (and I dislike this cliched explanation) but the film implies much of Du Pont's rage and disappointment was suppressed due to her controlling and disapproving behaviour. Once mommy dies and is no longer the barrier to his thwarted ambitions, Dave appears, in Du Pont's mind, to come between Mark and Du Pont, and Dave feels the deadly wrath of the deluded billionaire.

Carell is near unrecognisable here as an actor - his comic mannerisms are completely squelched by the elderly mortician-like demeanour of the Du Pont character and his face effectively masked in prosthetics that alter his appearance tremendously. It's a very affecting performance.

Tatum, who can be charmingly winning and heroic in most roles, transforms into a brooding, menacing, near wordless hulk concealing his feelings of abandonment and hurt at what life has thrown his way. Excellent performances by all. Director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote), Tatum, Carrell and Ruffalo were all gracious and funny at the Q&A after the TIFF screening last September. Even I could see that from the second to last row of the Princess of Wales Theatre.

Post-script: Mark Schulz has since expressed concerns about his representation in the film which you may read about here. And then ... somewhat retracted his angry attack here.

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