Monday, November 24, 2014

"Foxcatcher": a sports tragedy unfolds as a mystery of the Hitchcock kind, with some good old 80's storytelling

The film “Foxcatcher”, directed by Bennett Miller, and written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, is a slow-paced but absorbing character drama, centering around wrestling and the team in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, and the tragedy that follows.  Stylistically, the film combines elements of late 1980s storytelling (which I like, and so do a lot other moviegoers) with the close-up intensity and mystery of Alfred Hitchcock (who probably would have directed this if he were still alive), with a touch of eccentricity of the Christopher Nolan and David Lynch brand.  The film, though long (134 minutes), is rather simply filmed (almost in dogme), with the usual 1.85:1 aspect so that the face and body closeups dominate.

It is based in large part on the booklet “Wrestling with Madness: John E. Du Pont and the Foxcatcher Farm Murder”, website (inexpensive purchase) here

As the film opens, we are presented with the Schultz brothers, Mark (Channing Tatum) and David (Mark Ruffalo), who look and act like Jacob and Esau from Genesis.  David has raised Mark after a family tragedy, and as both men aim at wrestling careers, Mark has trouble getting out from under the charisma of his older brother.  One day, however, in early 1987, Mark gets a bizarre phone call in his apartment (in New York State).  His new benefactor is to be John Du Pont (Steve Carell), who wants to use his family fortune to do the patriotic thing and sponsor a winning wrestling team in the 1988 Olympics, to help end Ronald Reagan’s years in glory. He’s also interested birds and in stamp collection, and general philanthropy.

You can tell that Du Pont is a little creepy.  His mouth is always agape, and he stares as he talks to Mark.  Remember Carell’s roles before.  He has hosted SNL, and he starred as the “man-o-lantern” in “The 40 Year Old Virgini”, where his chest is strip-waxed on camera.  This role seems to fit all the others.

Then, remember that pretty boy Channing Tatum starred in “Magic Mike” (July 1, 2012), where a female character asked his avatar, “Why do you shave your legs for work?”  All of this sets up the innuendo.  Du Pont is constantly intrusive and meddlesome as the wrestling team works on his “Foxcatcher” farm. When the ride a chopper together to a dinner in New York, John takes out the cocaine, and introduces Mark to it, and Mark is quite unwilling.  And never do we hear Nancy Reagan on background TV say “Just say no to drugs.”  It’s also apparent, two-thirds into the movie, that John (who married once with an annulment in 90 days) has a gay crush on Mark.  The homoerotic tension boils, in and off the wrestling mats.  It’s hard to imagine wrestling in the straight world without the protection of homophobia.

The sequence at the end of the movie, recreating John’s murder of David in 1996, is a bit muddy. History says that John had become a paranoid schizophrenic.  The film would leave the impression that David somehow kept him from a bigger relationship with Mark. By the way, the AIDS epidemic is never mentioned, although research in the 1980s could have used John’s money.
It’s also not so clear why David joins Foxcatcher in the middle of the movie, since Mark has said that David cannot be bought with money. But David becomes a dedicated trainer again, even helping Mark make weight in vomiting sessions. 

Vanessa Redgrave is terrific as John’s moralistic mom, who even says that “wrestling is low”.
The film is a lot more subtle than comparable films about boxing (“Raging Bull”, “Cinderella Man”, and even the “Rocky” series).

The film has an effective piano score by Robert Simonsen.  Stylistically, the music fits in with other contemporary piano music from young NYC composers like Ted Hearne and Timo Andres.  

The official site is here   Annapurna pictures (Zero Dark Thirty) produced the film, and Sony chose to use its Sony Pictures Classics brand rather than Columbia Pictures, and this movie fits Columbia’s own brand culture to a T, complete with liberty statue. 
The film was shot largely around Pittsburgh, although it the story takes place in the Brandywine valley in SE Pennsylvania.   

It;s worthy of note that in the 1988 Olympics, diver Greg Louganis  ("Breaking the Surface") became the subject of controversy.  

I saw this film late Monday at Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield VA with a moderate crowd for a weekday. 

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