Friday, January 23, 2015

ACTING, PSYCHOLOGY GRIP US IN ‘FOXCATCHER’

By Dominique Paul Noth


Steve Carell works on the mental mindset of Channing
Tatum (right) in 'Foxcatcher.'
The excellence of “Foxcatcher” headlocked me. Not because I didn’t know the historic outline of the story (though many don’t and may be more blessed by surprise). Only partly because we have not been as inundated with ads and media goose-goose for this film as for the competitors.  (Indeed, some “Foxcatcher” interview hype turns out to be misdirected.) Mainly my positive reaction was to a film proud of its psychological nuance and fidelity to style, while not pretending in ads or attitudes to be explosive and epic, which so many studios think is the key to attracting audiences. 

Honoring the discipline of editing and the subtlety of acting, director Bennett Miller expertly captures the bright colors and darkening tones that move us  from the grubby world of workmanlike gyms and lonely meals -- endured in the 1980s by the world’s best freestyle wresters -- to the lure of Virginia estates, helicopter rides, protective security and all the prestige and largesse of America’s richest family, the du Ponts.

I hadn’t expected Miller deserved an Oscar nomination for directing but he does. I don’t think he will win but he is a far more acceptable Oscar choice than “Imitation Game’s” Morten Tyldum. Particularly since Miller’s original work was so detailed that the film is strengthened by expert shortening while Tyldum never seems to know when to quit

You would probably grab your wallet and head for the hills if someone came to you asking for money with the outlines of the “Foxcatcher” story.  I mean, come on! Two brothers, Olympic Gold freestyle wrestlers from the wrong side of the tracks,  running afoul of a rich man who wants to be called “Golden Eagle” and lards them with attention.  Sounds like a bit of masculine overkill of class clichés and Nixonian style establishment pretenses.  But this unfolding, while allowing us to revel in the greenery of the rich and grunt in the sweat of the gym, produces something deeper than peasant roots confronting aristocratic stock. 

Miller’s care with place and contrasts of values means he doesn’t have to spell out social messages, they just pop up and pop in.  How the rich in their wealthy isolation are not only catered to but rewarded when they come down from Olympus to back the routine athletes of the Olympics.  How family envy underlies disappointment whatever the class. How people obviously crazy but filthy rich are excused and even rewarded for the craziness. How the virtues of hard basic achievement can be corrupted all too easily. How the wealthy are allowed “idiosyncrasies” that on the street corner would be labeled dangerous nuttiness.

Even the casual cameos – Vanessa Redgrave as the matriarchal du Pont rich with stylish disapproval – further the emotional impact.

There is terrific physical control and emotionally exact acting from the leading trio.  There are also  liberties with the actual story to create growing tension, an emotional seduction by an aloof and demanding patron who wants to be a leader of men and must subtly destroy any opposing worthy. When he can’t, we sense impending doom that can’t be dismissed as random mental illness.

A revelation awaits those who only came to watch screen heartthrob  Channing Tatum flex his abs. His portrayal of Mark Schultz, the younger brother hungry for fame and resisting the supportive shadow of David, his down to earth brother, carries us from concentrated simple-minded focus on his craft to blind destructive devotion to a substitute father of great wealth and growing scariness,  then on into glowering hatred over what has happened to his central worth.

It is portrait internally believable but has angered the real-life Mark whose memoirs inspired the film. He has openly questioned where the director has taken his character (cocaine use, social and sexual naiveté) – but the character decisions actually allow believable inner conflicts to dramatically surface. The approach also gives Tatum the role of his life, and he meets every tic.


Tatum turns away from older brother Dave, played
by Mark Ruffalo in 'Foxcatcher.'
But as good as he is, Mark Ruffalo is better as the  family centered older brother. It is almost harder to make simply virtues real, but Ruffalo provides the self-assuredness of a husband, father and brother who is also a champion wrestler and teacher – a certainty about his place in life that increases the paranoia  of  John E. du Pont.

And that is the acting that is getting the most attention at awards time – Steve Carell as the quietly creepy du Pont, with his slow cadences, bizarre strains of thought, disturbing manners and spread-leg walk like a turtle pretending to be an athlete.  It is a fine performance that reminds everyone that Carell is more than the  comic actor that has brought him fame.  Yet  because he has a sense of comic timing he never misses an opportunity to evoke edgy laughter from the quirkiest remarks. A part of me thinks  he is getting  the award nominations  because of the great proboscis given him by the makeup department, but it takes a fine actor to turn that physical gimmick into a natural enhancement of the emotional realities.

It is wise not to reveal too much of the events, but in  “Foxcatcher” the characters circle each other in psychological arenas far more dangerous than a gym mat. It is a grappling of minds you don’t completely anticipate, but stunning to sink into.




Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.