Foxcatcher (2014) | Savannah Film Festival


{For every film and short that I attend at the festival I will be including both a brief, unspoiled synopsis, followed by a spoiler filled discussion beneath it. So be warned before you read-on that if you do not wish to spoil any of the following titles that you watch for my included warnings.}

For the second film I’ve seen this festival, and for the first packed house I’ve been to for a film this year; Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher was a unique experience if not an incredibly satisfying one.

No short film this time around. However, we in the audience were given a treat, as actor Matt Bomer was attending the festival, and was given a SCAD Spotlight award that evening for his achievements and skills in acting throughout his career thus far. And despite only being in the business for a few years, he has already done plenty of impressive work.

The story of Foxcatcher follows Olympic gold-medalist, Mark Schultz, as he is recruited by a rich philanthropist named John Du Pont to become the star figure of Du Pont’s new Olympic Wrestling Team. Du Pont has a vision, a vision for America, a vision for it to return to prominence, and for the youth and sports players of America to have role models to look up to. And he hopes that those role-models can be his wrestlers. But, there’s something a bit off about John Du Pont; you don’t quite know what’s going on in his head. He’s almost a spoiled and privileged child trapped in a middle-aged man’s body. He’s a wild-card. And this wild-card could prove very dangerous to Mark and his brother David if they were to get on his bad side. This then is what creates the conflict for the film.

Spoilers Ahead!

Since this movie is based on real-life events, some of you may have already read by now that John Du Pont had become extremely paranoid by 1988, and was sure that David Schultz was responsible for causing John to trip in his house, potentially injuring him. And so John up and decided one day to drive up to Dave’s house, roll down his window, and shoot him three times with a hand-gun.

Now this did not happen exactly that way in the film: there was no point where John Du Pont tripped or had an event occur that would have made him feel like his wrestling team was trying to harm him. But instead what the filmmakers emphasized was the growing power struggle and slight relationship triangle between John Du Pont, the younger Mark Schultz, and the older David Schultz.

Basically, once John Du Pont brings Mark Schultz on as the star of his team, the two begin to bond: John finds a son in Mark, and Mark finds a father in John. Mark had always been taken care of by his brother Dave, and John tries to steer Mark away from Dave’s shadow. But then John ends up putting Mark “under his wing” as it were, as John likes to refer to himself as America’s Golden Eagle; and this creates an eerily strange relationship between the two where Mark begins to respect and admire John a bit too much.

At one point, Mark’s opinion of John soars so high that when John strikes Mark in the face, Mark’s trust is completely shattered. After that, Mark no longer looks at John the same way, and barely ever talks to him. That’s when Mark lets his brother back in, and Dave becomes the go-between. Unlike his brother had done, Dave never thought very highly of John; he could never find anything meaningful or interesting to say about him. All of this eventually culminated in John feeling a strong sense of contempt from Dave, and John strongly resenting Dave for it. Thus, this is what leads to the eventual drive-by murder.

I think it was wise of the filmmakers to go this route, as it doesn’t necessarily give a clear cause and effect to the decision of murder in John Du Pont’s mind, as I’m sure there was no clear motive or point of decision in real life: but this does help provide some potential triggers that could have set John off.

Major Spoilers over

The three main actors of Foxcatcher are all at the top of their game here. I’ve begun to see more and more work from Mark Ruffalo in recent years, and I am continually impressed by his performances and the kinds of roles he chooses. And I think it is both unfortunate and fortunate that I had to first see him in the role of Bruce Banner/The Hulk in The Avengers, because that role was rather nondescript, and didn’t stand out as much as many of Mark’s other roles. However, it was also a good film to start with, because it nonetheless introduced me to the actor, and it wasn’t until after I saw that film that I started watching more and more serious dramas, which seems to be where Mark Ruffalo gets most of his work.

I haven’t seen all that much with Channing Tatum, however. And although I never fully prescribed to the assumption that he was just a pretty faced actor, I’m glad to see that he is committed to being as serious of an actor as any of his colleagues. The role of Mark Schultz allowed Channing to play to the strengths of his stature, and to realize a character that was very hard on himself. Channing had to endure a lot of physical stress and likely some physical harm while playing this role; not just in training to become knowledgeable at wrestling, but also to intentionally punch and beat himself up during certain scenes. It was rather shocking actually. And I could not say if he was really punching himself in the cheek, or if that was a faux punch with an added sound effect. However, I know for a fact he did smash his head into a mirror, whether not it may have been a prop-glass mirror.

Of course the star of the film is the miraculous transformation of comedic actor and lovable leading man, Steve Carell into the off-putting, dark, and unreadable real-life character of John E. Du Pont.

What is most apparent about Carell’s performance, other than the brilliant make-up job, is that Steve is almost completely non-existent in this part. There are only a few moments, like the introduction and when John speaks loudly that you still feel like Steve is somewhere in there; but other than that, it’s one of the more complete transformations I’ve seen. Almost on par with something that Gary Oldman would do. It’s very much in the same vein as the late Robin Williams, taking on the role of Patch Adams (1998) and Andrew Martin (Bicentennial Man, 1999), only to turn around two years later and play Seymour Parrish (One Hour Photo, 2002) and Walter Finch (Insomnia, 2002).

Up until this point, Steven Carell has never prescribed to the antagonist before, only ever the absent-minded but lovable father, or the quirky and awkward loner, or other likable characters in-between. Even Gru (Despicable Me). But now he has crossed that threshold, and has proven himself capable of handling a dark and dramatic role. The question remains, however, if he was only able to achieve this role by that extra element of the make-up? Because I’ll admit, that if I had to watch Steve Carell as he normally is, playing this role, I would not have bought it; and it also would have been incredibly awkward because Steve Carell is just too nice looking of a guy.

Seriously, though, his acting chops are not in question, and make-up does not change your ability to perform a character, unless it is a subconscious thing.

Interestingly, what I think allows Steve Carell to achieve this character the way he does is precisely because of his improve and comedic training. His ability for comedic timing, as he uses to great effect in both Get Smart and Anchor Man, allows him to pick up on the subtle oddities of John Du Pont’s speech patterns and possibly his inner thought process. It takes a unique mode of thinking and an odd perspective to think that you are the country’s saving grace and that everyone is just dying to read your new book on bird watching. But it also takes a wild imagination to make wild accusations, change your decisions on a dime, and to irrationally throw away priceless things just to further your own ideals.

And all of these things had to be taken into account before Steve Carell would be able to speak one word as John Du Pont. It oddly enough is one of the most chilling and most funny true-life antagonists I’ve ever seen in a drama. And I truly believe that there is no one else who could have played this character better than Steve. I’d actually be curious to know what Steve’s friends like Steven Colbert and Dana Carvey think of his latest dramatic turn. The three of them worked together for quite a few years, it’d be interesting to know how shocked or surprised they were at his believability.

As a story, it’s a unique one; and one that I would not have learned about otherwise, which I find more than a little surprising, actually. As a piece of entertainment, I was impressed to see such a varied group of people attending the film: nearly every age group from teens to Senior citizens were in attendance, and everyone was excited to see it. But as for me personally, while the production of the film was admirable and the story well-told, it’s not one of those films I’d ever watch again; and I was actually hoping I might.

I’ll be writing a more complete essay about this at a later time, but in recent years I have begun to discover more and more independent drama films; things like Albert Nobbs, The Best Offer, and something more horror-based like The Awakening: all of which I absolutely loved and hope to watch again and again. I could not say the same, unfortunately, for Foxcatcher. The film was simply too dark of a story and too gray of an atmosphere for me to want to relieve the events again.

However, I would be curious to read up more on the actual events. Perhaps pick up the book that the film was based on.

If you haven’t seen this film yet, I encourage you give it a watch sometime just to see the incredibly performance by Steve Carell; who I’m sure will grace us with another dramatic turn in the near future. Other than that, I bid you farewell until the next feature film from the Savannah Film Festival.