Saturday, October 11, 2014

NYFF ’14: Foxcatcher

The du Pont family has a rich history, including such accomplished leaders as former Gov. Pete du Pont and the original chemist-industrialist Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours. John E. du Pont was definitely their black sheep. Yet, filmmaker Bennett Miller unequivocally assured those assembled for the NYFF press conference the du Ponts never tried to interfere with the film. In general, they were not exactly thrilled, but several family members were surprisingly helpful, as were most of the surviving witnesses of his downfall. Miller rewarded their trust with a brooding psychological study, resisting lurid sensationalism throughout Foxcatcher (trailer here), which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 52nd New York Film Festival.

Both Mark Shultz and brother, Dave, won wrestling gold medals at the 1984 Olympics. They hope to repeat in 1988, but they do not have much support. At least Dave has the encouragement of his family and a natural affinity for coaching. Mark on the other hand, is something of a lost soul. Initially, the offer to come train at du Pont’s Foxcatcher Farm estate seemed like a blessing. He would finally have the resources and structure the younger Shultz brother so obviously needed. However, the power dynamics with his patron are problematic from the get-go.

Although Du Pont styles himself a wrestling coach, he really needs someone with Dave Schultz’s expertise to drill and instruct the Foxcatcher team. Yet, unlike his impressionable brother, Dave Schultz is not over-awed by du Pont’s wealth and elitist demeanor. Eventually, this will lead to tragedy.

In many ways, Foxcatcher is a fascinating true crime story, but Miller determinedly freezes out any potential fun. Instead, he offers heavy-handed commentaries on the American patriotism and exceptionalism extolled by du Pont, contrasting them with the depressing meanness of Mark Schultz’s circumstances. In one representative scene, Schultz receives a paltry twenty dollar check from a middle school principal for addressing her disinterested student body, while a photo of Pres. Reagan beams down from the wall (after all, unionized public school administrators formed the core of the Gipper’s support, right?).

Still, that is all ironic garnish. The fundamental problem with Foxcatcher is the portrayal of Mark Schultz. In all fairness, it could well constitute a career best from Channing Tatum, who must express most of the inarticulate Schultz’s angst through body language. Clearly, the film suggests the younger Schultz is at most a half-formed personality, who has considerable difficulty navigating life away from the wrestling mat. The audience sees du Pont identify and exploit his under-developed psyche, yet it never acknowledges the host of attendant issues that would logically follow for Schultz, even before he arrives at the estate.

Nevertheless, there is something genuinely touching about Channing’s hulking vulnerability. Likewise, Mark Ruffalo is terrific as the ever-protective big brother, somehow keeping him just on the believable side of saintliness. On the other hand, even though Steve Carrell is receiving mucho Oscar buzz for his turn as du Pont, it is surprisingly schticky work, largely consisting of him literally looking down his prosthetic nose at people. It is really the amalgamation of visual symbolism rather than a performance.

It has been a rough stretch for Team USA grapplers, considering wrestling was dropped as a “core sport” from the 2020 games (just barely making it back in through the backdoor as an elective) and now having the dirty linen of their greatest benefactor aired in public. It will find plenty of champions for its class conscious polemical excesses, but it never gets a consistent handle on just who Mark Schultz was and is. Too long and too over-stuffed with a sense of its own self-importance, Foxcatcher is not recommended when it screens again this afternoon (10/11) at Alice Tully Hall, as part of this year’s NYFF.