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Foxcatcher

Nominated for 5 Oscars, including Best Actor (Carell), Supporting Actor (Ruffalo) and Director

Bennett Miller’s sports movie Foxcatcher – based on a true story – is a superb tragicomedy of the beta male, a nightmare of the also-ran and almost-ran. It is also a deeply strange story about a strange man whose insecurities were all too ordinary and explicable. Above everything else, it is a piercing insight into toxic mentor-ism, into competitive men and their terrible emotional need to find a father figure to hate and to disappoint.

Foxcatcher Farm is the magnificent Pennsylvania home of the du Pont family, a colossal mansion created in imitation of the English country house. In the mid-80s, it was home to John Du Pont – played here by Steve Carell with a superb feel for the role’s absurdity and anguish. He is a lonely, prickly and arrogant plutocrat who has had years to develop a sense of entitlement and the rich man’s capricious and demanding manner. Suspecting that he is a disappointment to his cantankerous patrician mother (an exquisite cameo from Vanessa Redgrave), John sets out to achieve something: he decides to bankroll America’s national wrestling team and use his staggering wealth to win Olympic gold for the U.S. at the 1988 Seoul Games.

So John gets in touch with a blue-collar guy called Mark Schulz (Channing Tatum), a wrestler and gold medal winner at the 1984 Olympics, and the younger brother of the smarter, more charismatic and more successful wrestler and coach Dave Schulz (Mark Ruffalo). Poor Mark has always been second banana to Dave, who is nonetheless affectionate and protective about his great lunk of a brother. Mark is used to people talking to him when they really want to talk to his cooler brother. So he is astonished and then profoundly thrilled to be called up one day by the eccentric and sinister Du Pont and invited to live and train at Foxcatcher.

But wait. Why did du Pont seek him out and not Dave? Du Pont mouths tender platitudes about seeing Mark’s potential and allowing him to emerge from his brother’s shadow. But clearly getting Mark on board was at some level just a ploy to get him to persuade Dave to join them both at Foxcatcher – a ploy that finally succeeds. Yet Miller and screenwriter E. Max Frye brilliantly allow you to see that it is more complicated: du Pont felt it easier to boss Mark around, and also felt an awful sense of identification with this second-class male. Whatever the reason, Mark is angry and humiliated when he realizes his new, rich quasi-dad prefers Dave; Dave, for his part, is angry and humiliated at having to kowtow to his new master. And then du Pont himself is angry and humiliated when he realizes that these ‘real’ men, from whom he attempted to buy self-respect, despise him. The scene is set for a disaster.

Just as in his previous film, Moneyball, Miller here reveals a connoisseur’s eye for the arenas and corporate spaces of sport: the training rooms, gyms, pennants, the offices – all the exciting outward show of sports prestige. There is a lovely scene when du Pont shows Mark the sumptuously appointed new training area he has set up at Foxcatcher, and with boyish excitement, Mark can’t help going into some moves, trying it out.

The act of wrestling itself is an absorbing and obviously metaphorical contest. It is an unerotic clinch: as intimate as dancing. In an early training encounter, Mark is clearly furious with himself for being bested by Dave and accidentally-on-purpose butts him in the face. Dave just wipes away the blood and carries on. He doesn’t say anything and his manly reticence just makes Mark’s sense of defeat worse.

It is a trio of wonderful performances. Channing Tatum’s Mark is vulnerable and sad; Mark Ruffalo’s Dave is smart and professional and his shame at taking the du Pont shilling is correspondingly intense. And Steve Carell’s du Pont is a compelling monster – but a monster who inspires not fear but pity.

It is a gripping film: horrible, scary and desperately sad.

– Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

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