Saturday, December 20, 2014

Surrender

 
 
Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher is a true-crime fairy-tale that is all over the map tonally.  It does a strange dance across that map, moving from balletic/animal-grunting/brother-bonding/wrestling homage to chilly thriller about the frozen inarticulate seas between certain classes of men to a homoerotic plunge into lalaland to finally an examination of a love triangle that has no geometry to it, just a sort of lonesome collection of angles and points that end up cutting everyone into pieces.  Chiefly it's about Mark Schultz, a 1984 Olympic-gold-winning wrestler whose brother, David, coaches him; John Du Pont, a rich crazy freak in the mold of Mr. Burns, contacts Mark to become his mentor in 1987, and eventually both David and Mark get caught up in Du Pont's fever-dream of self-delusion.   
 
At the start of Foxcatcher, Mark is giving a speech in front of some bored middle-schoolers, after which he receives a twenty-buck check written by the school secretary.  The whole enterprise feels totally sad .  After he cashes his check he goes home to his lonely apartment, eats Ramen noodles with hot sauce, and stares into space.  Mark is played by Channing Tatum, and it's Tatum's movie from start to finish.  The broody wordlessness that Miller turns into mood and scenes is overseen by Tatum's muscular, stony sorrowfulness that can't be exorcised outside of a wrestling match, outside of grueling training.  At times, Mark becomes so frustrated he starts hitting himself, punching his cheeks and forehead out of sheer frustration, and Tatum accomplishes these scenes without losing a sense of innocent abandon, a sort of ecstatic freedom born of self-flagellation, as if all he were meant to do on earth is beat himself to a pulp.  Tatum is definitely a movie star here:  he carries this movie through sheer commitment to a seemingly one-note part that cracks open into a world of heartache and isolation.  There's no redemption, just performance.
 
Speaking of which:  presenting Steve Carell as John Du Pont.  Carell's performance is helped along with a prosthetic nose and a pallid makeover that gives him a grim and yet almost glossy countenance.  He's like a monastic wicked witch, but also there's something of a lost and totally sad little boy uncurling constantly in his glassy eyes.  Carell does comic work here that can only be funny in this way because it's ensconced in tragedy.  His Du Pont slinks into the wrestling gym like a Will-Ferrell SNL character (remember that pretentious professor in the hot tub?), all glorious self-involvement and awkward arrogance, but also Carell, like the movie, lurches between caricature and total precision, and by the time the movie is through you don't necessarily understand why he does what he does, but you believe it all.  The laughter is part of the whole she-bang.  I put a picture of the actual Du Pont up top, and there you go:  he's Nosferatu getting arrested, right?  That's the gig here, a look into the sordid machinations of a super-rich mofo who seemed torn between sexual jealousy and sexual repression, aching for friendship, yearning for more, and yet unable to connect with anyone outside of his own implied social power structure.  Carell's best scene in the movie occurs when he tries to put on a big show in front of his ailing mother in her wheelchair (played with icy regal grandeur by Vanessa Redgrave):  all the wrestler he's bankrolling are ordered to sit on the floor while he stands above them awkwardly pontificating.  In the middle of his speech, his mother quietly orders her accompanying nurse to wheel her out of the room, obviously disgusted with her son's inability to do what he thinks he's doing.  He looks on with both frustration and surrender.  He owns the plantation after all, and when things don't go his way he seems to feel he has the right to kill what he considers his property.
 
The property he kills is Mark Ruffalo's David, Mark's older more attuned brother, who moves to Du Pont's Foxcatcher compound to coach the team (including his brother) Du Pont takes to the Olympics.  Ruffalo is  the normative hypotenuse of the triangle.  He's not the apple of Du Pont's eye; he's a tool Du Pont is trying to use to torture Mark psychologically, bringing him into the fold in order to solidify their relationship.  Ruffalo's brotherliness and kindness are so needed in this thing, and he accomplishes it all effortlessly, to the point you wonder why it all has to end the way it ends, with a totally banal shooting in front of a snowy little house.
 
The movie is all about a sort of glittering banality.  It takes true-crime into a dreamy world of fixation and realism.  It's probably one of the most precise evocations of the late 80s I've ever seen on screen, and not because it tries to evoke nostalgia as much as capture a mood of soft-lit devastation and fuzzy TV light and gaudy riches, all of it rolled into a hellish episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. You leave this movie not edified or fulfilled.  It's more like you're waking up from some beautiful, horrible nightmare closer to real life than nightmares should ever be.