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Wrestling with the wealthy

Film Review: "Foxcatcher" 

Wrestling with the wealthy

The picture's odd title, "Foxcatcher," in effect explains itself in an introductory montage of black and white still photographs mixed in with home movies, showing images of horses, riders, dogs, and inevitably, rich people in fancy riding clothes -- something right out of one of those British PBS television series. The title refers to a grand estate, the home of John E. du Pont, of the fabulously wealthy du Ponts, a place where his family and their friends rode over hill and dale after a panicked canine, an aristocratic sport that Oscar Wilde characterized as "the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable."

That estate and its inhabitants provide the subject, and in a sense the themes, of this most unusual film, a docudrama based on a strange and tragic history. The notion of fox hunting almost comically recedes into a kind of picturesque background, replaced by another sport -- of all things, wrestling, an endeavor far removed from the polite brutality of the hunt.

The movie focuses on three men, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), his brother David (Mark Ruffalo), both winners of gold medals for wrestling in the 1984 Olympics, and the wealthy amateur who wants to coach them for the 1988 games, John du Pont (Steve Carell). A lonely young man who trains with his older brother, who he believes always overshadowed him, Mark apparently lacks anything like a life outside the gym, while David enjoys normality with a wife and children. Both men succumb in different ways to the wealth and power of John du Pont.

Du Pont initially recruits Mark to serve as the leader of a group of wrestlers, Team Foxcatcher, he hopes to send to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. He pays him a good salary, sets him up in a house on the estate, and intimidates him with books and videos about the history of his family and the size of their fortune. He also desperately wants to enlist David as both participant and coach, which takes a great deal more time and effort and leads to several personal and brotherly complications.

Du Pont describes himself -- accurately -- as an ornithologist, philatelist, and philanthropist, and babbles constantly about his patriotism, his desire to return America to its rightful place (wherever that is), and his noble duties as a coach. A complete egomaniac, he speaks about his functions as father, brother, mentor, role model, and other self-aggrandizing duties, even commissioning a documentary on his work with the wrestlers.

Despite his reiterated lectures about training and dedication, du Pont corrupts Mark Schultz, introducing him to cocaine and some of the life of the sybarite. Although the director maintains a level of discreet understatement, the movie strongly suggests that du Pont seduces Mark, which leads to a sexual relationship. In one odd scene, for example, a half-naked Mark, his hair frosted, barbers John, then knees reverentially at his feet; du Pont's devotion to wrestling may reflect his love of seeing muscular young men grappling strenuously with each other.

Much, perhaps too much, of the film focuses on the actual business of training and Mark's and David's progress through several tournaments. The script also tends to repeat endlessly John du Pont's tiresome conversations about his work, his dream, his successes, etc. He also corrupts the Olympic Committee, apparently not a difficult task, promising to contribute $500,000 a year to guarantee that his Foxcatcher estate will serve as the headquarters of United States wrestling.

Beyond the beautiful exteriors of the vast Foxcatcher property, the sumptuous interiors of the mansion, the careful depiction of actual tournaments, the fascination of a documented tragic history, the picture really belongs to the three main actors. Amid the emotional complications and the sweaty intimacy of the sport, the three men perform with terrific skill.

As David Schultz, Mark Ruffalo provides the only instance of human decency in the movie, caring for his brother in ways that Mark never understands or appreciates, meeting a shocking but not really surprising fate. Given very little dialogue, playing an inarticulate character, Channing Tatum must suggest emotion mutely, through his facial expressions and telling silences.

Amazingly however, the picture really belongs to Steve Carell of all people. The hapless goof of pictures like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" simply inhabits the role of the ridiculous, increasingly psychotic millionaire; speaking a reedy boarding school accent, keeping his head constantly at an odd upward slant, behaving with the arrogant confidence of an immensely wealthy man with generations of famous ancestors, he displays an entirely unexpected dimension to his talents. He suits the role and the picture perfectly: he actually makes "Foxcatcher" his movie.

For another take on "Foxcatcher," you can read Adam Lubitow's review of the film here.

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