An oft told story is given stirring insight through first rate performances and production
Bennett Miller’s pot-boiling drama, “ripped from the headlines,” is a powerful and poignant essay of human frailty. There will be few viewers who, after seeing his remarkable portrayal of a doomed scion of the du Pont fortune, will not acknowledge Steve Carell as an artist of amazing versatility. Although his performance does not demand a huge variety of expressions and emotions, John du Pont’s character is so vastly removed from the Steve Carell we know that his performance is absolutely riveting.
The movie starts with a series of pictures of traditional foxhunts, with a rich pomposity long since lost in the age of cell phones and computer games. When a film tells a story that has been told a thousand times, it is hard to develop suspense. The superficial plot of a privately financed wrestling team competing in world-class competitions is only the canvas on which is drawn the dark and deadly psychological and spiritual flaws of the protagonists. The reason this movie is so thoroughly riveting is the deeply affecting performances of Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Vanessa Redgrave.
Tatum, as wrestling brother Mark Schultz, brings a level of disturbing dark energy to the film exceeding that even of Carell. The characters of du Pont and Mark Schultz are in the foreground throughout most of the film, vying for the title of “most disturbed person” in the movie. Mark Ruffalo, as David Schultz, Mark’s grounded, savvy and eternally protective brother has the difficult assignment of being a commanding figure in the story while being the only normal person in the main group of protagonists. Vanessa Redgrave has only a few appearances as du Pont matron Jean, but they are razor sharp.
Make no mistake, this is a sensational film about a sensational story and viewers should take everything with several grains of salt. Although the ostensible stories of the world-class wrestling center, Mark and David Schultz and the John’s murder of David are well known, the iron-clad secrecy of America’s ruling elite ensures that underlying psychologies will never be completely understood.
Having said that, the characters of John and Jean du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave) are depicted with unflinching brutality as two of the most seriously flawed of the richest and most powerful families in America. Exaggeration is the prime directive for mainstream American films, and these two people behave as if they were one step away from the looney bin before John ever established the Foxcatcher wrestling center. This bizarre relationship is shown in sharp and foreboding contrast to the gentle rolling hills of the verdant Foxcatcher estate with its beautiful horses forming waves of exquisite, synchronized motion.
The spare soundtrack further emphasizes the peaceful, almost death-like, silence of the Foxcatcher setting. The family uses this silence to insulate themselves from the outside world. When there is background music, it is ominous, lightly percussive strings and somber piano. The score is less musical and more symbolic of nervous energy about to break free of its moorings. The sedate piano reassures that whatever happens, the secrets of the du Ponts will stay secret.
Director Bennett Miller re-unites with “Capote” screenwriter Dan Futterman (co-written with E. Max Frye) to look into the dark inner regions of criminal psychology. The relative poverty of the two wrestling champions stands in stark contrast to the limitless wealth of du Pont, who appears to have done little or nothing for his money. At the same time, the two brothers have a love for each other that neither DuPont nor his mother have ever known.
The screenplay is not completely even, and at 134 minutes it is longer than it needs to be. Although never boring, it goes off track showing Mark breaking down under du Pont’s bullying and dissolving into a glutinous food orgy, beer and cocaine abuse and the perfunctory room bashing. No doubt having some historical accuracy, these sequences were not done with the subtle dark power of the rest of the movie. When David saves his brother from destruction, the film depicts the mold as being cast. John du Pont became obsessed with the destruction of the one man who stood between him and his ultimate goal of “mentor” for two of the greatest athletes in the world.
A dark and disturbing film made with exceptional skill and power.
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