Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wrestling with a difficult subject

Acting helps elevate weighty Foxcatcher.
Insular and insistently strange, Foxcatcher -- a new film from director Bennett Miller -- tells the twisted story of John E. du Pont, a super-rich heir to the massive du Pont fortune. I found Foxcatcher a difficult movie with which to connect, partly because of its willfully myopic approach to world about which most of us know very little.

In the mid-1980s, du Pont decided to make himself a force in the world of Olympic wrestling. He aspired to be a coach and leader of men in a sport that emphasized strength and agility -- neither of which he seemed to possess in any substantial quantity.

Based on a true story, Foxcatcher -- the movie is named for du Pont's Pennsylvania estate -- is partly about the ways in which a deluded rich man tried to buy his way into a fantasy version of himself.

To date, Foxcatcher's biggest talking point has centered on Steve Carell, who plays du Pont, and who looks nothing like the Steve Carell we're familiar with from other movies.

Made unrecognizable by a large false nose, Carell talks in soft tones. The strange rhythms of his speech and his impenetrable affect make for a character who's blatantly unconcerned about what anyone thinks.

Perhaps that's the idea. Constantly degraded by his dominating mother (Vanessa Redgrave), du Pont -- a published ornithologist and noted philanthropist -- identifies himself as a patriot and wrestling enthusiast. He says his friends call him Eagle or Golden Eagle, but we can assume he picked those names himself. He doesn't seem to have any friends.

Du Pont is the kind of weird fellow whose money protects him from being tagged as a self-important nutcase. Sans his fortune, he might have been found mumbling to himself on a street corner.

In the early going, Miller (Capote and Moneyball) concentrates on the relationship between du Pont and gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum).

Feeling neglected by an indifferent world, a nearly impoverished Schultz becomes an easy target for du Pont, who invites him to move onto his Pennsylvania estate and train for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

Du Pont also pursues -- and eventually corrals -- Schultz's brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), another gold medal winner and respected wrestling coach.

The relationship among the three men gives the movie a smoldering undertone that touches on sibling rivalry, absent fatherhood and perhaps even deeply repressed homosexuality. That's an outline more than a description: Foxcatcher opens a basket full of issues, some of which never are particularly well-defined.

Although he presents himself as a dumb jock, Mark seems to understand that he's latched onto a good thing. He's under the wing of someone who admires him and supports him financially. Du Pont also introduces Mark to dissolute pursuits (alcohol and cocaine) that, for a time, turn his head.

Although Dave is the most centered of all the characters, he, too, is caught in du Pont's web. He wants to provide his wife (Sienna Miller) and two kids with a stable home, something neither he nor Mark had as kids. He likes living on du Pont's estate, where he's been given his own house.

All three actors dig deeply into their roles, although Tatum gives the most complex and tormented of all the performances. Don't bother reading that sentence again. It should not come as news to you that Tatum (Magic Mike) can act.

If you don't know how this story ends, I'm not about to tell you.

But I think Miller intends for us to play the movie back in our minds in ways that demand a re-evaluation of each performance in light of the movie's conclusion.

You'll notice that I haven't said much about wrestling. That's because Foxcatcher isn't really a sports movie; it's a study of three different men -- how they mingled and goaded one another.

And when we do see wrestling, it's clearly meant to be more than a sport. Near the movie's opening, Tatum and Ruffalo are seen grappling with each other in a training session. Although both actors appear to have gotten in shape for their roles, Tatum and Ruffalo seem less like athletes than animals, lumbering beasts locked in primal combat.

I found Foxcatcher a bit boring at times, possibly because it feels so sealed off from the natural flow of life. Its intensely observed scenes don't always have a payoff.

Despite the excellence of the acting and the obvious weightiness of Miller's approach, Foxcatcher left me wondering. Can a movie be based on a true story without ever feeling entirely real?

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