Foxcatcher: The Fox Speaks, But Is He Saying Anything?

How to describe Foxcatcher? Remember that episode of The Simpsons in which Bart is adopted by Mr. Burns? Yeah, it’s kind of like that. But based on real events, and you know, not a comedy. The Bart part is played by Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz, a professional wrestler most memorable for winning gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The Mr. Burns to Tatum’s Bart is eccentric (and very creepy) billionaire John Du Pont, of the all-American Du Pont dynasty, who lures the broke wrestler into his estate by offering him a rather lucrative sponsorship. All he asks in return? To be his father figure and mentor.

The triangle at the center of this movie is completed by Mark Ruffalo as Mark’s brother, Dave. His character doesn’t have a clear Simpsons equivalent, but he works as the other guiding force in Mark’s life. If Carell’s Du Pont is a the devil whispering into Mark’s left ear, then Dave is the angel standing on the right shoulder. The brothers had a rough childhood. Mark says he was basically raised by Dave, and you can tell that he is still very much looking after his little brother, which is good, ’cause he kind of needs it. Let’s just say Mark isn’t the brightest bulb in the box. As played by Tatum, he is a purely primitive man. He bounced his body like a caveman, and always keeps his jaw tense.

Ruffalo’s Dave, on the other hand, is what you would call a smart fighter. Mark is bigger (and probably stronger), but Dave has got the brains, and the moves. He is also pure heart, the most recognizably human character in this bleak drama. To finish talking about the performances, Carell’s Du Pont is… well, I really don’t know what he is doing here. In isolation, his is a bonkers performance. Understated, yet constantly over-the-top, he is never too far from being a cartoon character. It’s not like he was trying to channel the behavior of the actual John Du Pont, or at least not judging from the footage of him you can find on Youtube. His performance has a level of weirdness that I think the movie doesn’t appreciate as much as I do.

Because, you see, the other comparison I can make when describing Foxcatcher is to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The MasterThey are both movies about a man trying to take the reigns of another man’s “soul”. One a cultish leader, the other a millionaire obsessed with wrestling. Both movies feature go-for-broke performances, and both feature scenes as ridiculous as to be the most avant-garde SNL sketch you’ve ever seen. The difference is that The Master develops its themes out of its tight focus on the characters, while Foxcatcher seems like a movie that wants to have a theme, but doesn’t really know how to justify it.

It’s no secret that Foxcatcher wants to be about America. It is this far away from screaming it at our faces, what with all of Du Pont’s patriotic speeches, the ubiquitous American flags, and its chanting-filled final moments. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to know how to be about it. Try as I might, I am unable of interpreting the movie in any meaningful way. Besides, that is, a very mushy and superficial message about the rich being evil and whatnot.

I don’t think director Bennett Miller, who is responsible for a movie as effective as 2011’s Moneyballand who won best director at Cannes for this movie earlier this year, would be satisfy with such a superficial message. I’ve always found him to be one that prioritizes objective presentation over any kind of didactic themes. Here, however, while keeping a cold aesthetic throughout the movie, the constant symbols, and the way he treats Carell’s performance have him hammering his point to the audience without much to back him up on the script level.

Somewhat amusingly, this movie about a man born into a wealthy family using his fortune to vicariously achieve success at wrestling was produced by Megan Ellison, herself the daughter of a millionaire who used her fortune to break into the movie business. Now, I’m not trying to diss Ellison, who has been doing an outstanding job producing some of the best movies of the past few years -like Zero Dark Thirty and Spring Breakers-, but I can’t help but wonder if she sees any parallels at all between her and Du Pont. In any case, the saddest thing about Foxcatcher is that my speculation about Megan Ellison’s thoughts is more interesting than the movie itself.

Grade: out of 10.

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