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Foxcatcher PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
30 01 2015

ImageDirected by Bennett Miller

An almost unbearable loneliness and isolation squats at the heart of this fine film, personified in its two central characters. One is Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), Olympic gold medallist wrestler, reduced to living in a rented room, dining on supermarket noodles and giving would-be inspirational speeches to restless school children. Fame has not rescued him from his hard-scrabble drifter background, and his only friend, and father-figure, is his elder brother David (Mark Ruffalo), also a gold medal winner, who in contrast has found contentment in a wife and family and settled suburban life. The other centre of desolation is John Du Pont (Steve Carrell), eccentric son of one of America's wealthiest families.

Like the super rich and half-bonkers Baekerlands (as in Bakerlite) in Tom Kalin's startling 2007 film Savage Grace (where flavour-of-the-season Eddie Redmayne first distinguished himself) the Du Ponts are part of America's ‘royalty', even though Lady Bracknell would have dismissed their high station as mere ‘purple of commerce'. Now producers of synthetic fabrics, they made their fortune with gunpowder, for which the Civil and Great Wars were nice little earners, and assumed old world ways like riding to hounds, as a rather sinister grainy black and white prelude shows us here. John's mother, a chilling little cameo by Vanessa Redgrave, has built up a high class stable of thoroughbred horses, named Foxcatcher, and John wants to do the same in his sport of choice.

The stable John Du Pont wants to build is of elite wrestlers, initially aiming at the Seoul Olympics. (It's a low sport, his disapproving refrigerator mama pronounces.) He will be head coach and patron, and he is obsessed with bringing the two Schultz brothers in. One phone call and Mark's soon heading out of his dismal mean streets for Pennsylvania, a technicolor picture-postcard America, and landing by helicopter in the grounds of the classically styled Du Pont mansion, where he's lodged in a cottage in the grounds and introduced to superb sporting facilities, new colleagues, intense security and his strange host, amid much flummery about patriotism and moral worth. Tatum is perfect for this role, a muscular lump of a man whose open face shows little emotion yet implies a good deal going on beneath. Occasionally his deep-buried emotions and frustrations break out - smashing his head into a mirror, lashing out at his brother, stuffing his face when he should be keeping his weight down, but as a fighter he's controlled, focused, the perfect sportsman. He's found a new mentor.

But if that's a typical Tatum role, Steve Carrell's couldn't be more different from his usual comedy schtick. Transformed with a false nose, he's a glacial mixture of menace and pity and frightening unpredicability. His guarded face, like Tatum's, shows nothing but implies everything. The prosthetic beak-like nose, far from being a distraction, becomes his character's focus as he gazes down along it on a humanity he scarcely understands and hardly trusts. Insecurity mixed with a feeling of entitlement and extreme loneliness combine with a fondness for guns is a weird brew, and Carrell does wonders with the role, producing a queasy nervous edge to all his scenes.

By no means least in the trio at the centre of this film is Mark Ruffalo's Dave, an all-round unassuming good guy, not an easy thing to carry off. And it's to a great extent his credibility in the role that gives the whole film its real punch. His arrival at the mansion is a breath of normal life that steps up rather than alleviates the feeling of unease. The film is notable for what it doesn't show. What exactly goes on between Mark and Du Pont to lead to their catastrophic break is only to be conjectured. With Mark's newly styled hair and cocaine habit, along with so much flesh and the possibilities of the close contact sport, it's hard not to imagine something overtly sexual, but Du Pont is such an odd character that maybe it is mere close human contact and relaxed friendship he craves - something that his position and awkwardness make impossible. Like so much in this movie, it's all open to conjecture.

Don't expect lots to ‘happen'. It' a gruelling watch, unrelentingly tense -all the more so if you know the outcome, a dark story without redemption, a pessimistic view of self-destructing humanity, of a society where wealth can dangerously buffer all manner of frailties, and of a world where the achievement of ordinary people - even Olympic Gold - is worth nothing without patronage. Although it's set over 20 years ago, it's a truly apt film for our times.

Seen at Empire Cinema, Newcastle, 28 January 2015

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