Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes.

Grade:  B+

Director:  Bennett Miller

Screenwriter:  E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman

Cast:  Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller

Screened at:  Sony, NYC, 10/20/14

Opens:  November 14, 2014

If you had a few million dollars, make that a billion, what would you do?  Would you collect a garage-full of antique cars?  Buy some property in the South of France?  Set up a philanthropic foundation?  These are options that many of the super-rich commit to, but John Eleuthere du Pont had other ideas.  A bird-watching enthusiast, he had a coffee-table picture book published on his hobby.  Though his mother kept a stable of show horses on the DuPont estate near Valley Forge Pennsylvania, John did not care a whit about what he called stupid animals, but as we read between the images of “Foxcatcher,” directed by Bennett Miller (“Moneyball”) and written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, this real-life character’s view of horses was channeled through his love-hate relationship with mom.  As played by Vanessa Redgrave in the role of Jean Lister Austin du Pont, the elderly lady did not approve of her son, particularly of the middle-aged man’s hobby.  As played in a stunning characterization way against his usual identity by Steve Carell, John Du Pont imagined himself a wrestling coach.  The theme of “Foxcatcher,” named after the estate passed down through generations and one involved the “sport” of setting dogs on foxes, is John’s fierce love of country, an ideology that motivates him to train Olympic-quality wrestlers for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.

With his [prosthetic] nose in the air, as though afflicted by the smell of the sweat of his wrestling students, John set his sights on recruiting Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a taciturn, muscular wrestler who appears at first without friends or family, giving a speech before a class of first graders on the value of persistence and then returning home to a miserable ramen meal.  As he flashes the gold medal he won in the 1984 Olympics, he collects his small speaker’s fee from the school secretary, who notes that Mark’s older brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) had been the preferred candidate for the talk.  A phone call from one of John Du Pont’s assistants summons Mark to the Du Pont mansion via first-class plane travel followed by a helicopter trip directly to the huge estate near Valley Forge (filmed largely in Pennsylvania locations) where Mark is told of plans to shape him and a few other champions for competition in Seoul.

When Mark’s older brother, Dave, who unlike Mark has a wife and two kids, reluctantly takes up John’s offer to be the real coach rather than the one which John pretends to be (and which John’s followers pretend to listen to), a number of conflicts come into play.  John’s relationship with his disapproving mother is illustrated as Jean du Pont, wheelchair bound, screws up her face as she watches the men practice for the Olympics.  Some sibling rivalry takes root, as Mark envies his older brother’s strong family bonds, his greater articulateness, and the attention paid to him by the athletes.  Most of all, John, himself a closeted paranoid schizophrenic who at various points orders a tank, a machine gun and who practices on the shooting range with a pistol, believes that Dave is out to get him, particularly when Dave, surprisingly inarticulate when helping a documentary ordered by John, can barely get words of praise out of his mouth.  Dave does not like John, and John believes that Dave is plotting murder.

Top notch performances come from the central triangle with an unrecognizable and humorless Steve Carrell gradually showing signs of psychological breakdown.  Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, obviously showing signs that they had rehearsed their wrestling for earlier months, respectively knock out some of their best work.  Greig Fraser’s lenses settle into the Du Pont estate while at the same time visualizing scenes from flyover country including hotel rooms and a school auditorium.  Director Bennett Miller shows his fondness for long takes, watching over conversations in real time with all the pauses that real people make while relating.

“Foxcatcher” is a psychological drama, but too casually paced to be considered a thriller.  There is much to admire in the performances and in the director’s respect for the audience to read between the images without pounding us over the head with, for example, with explanations of John Du Pont’s paranoia.

Rated R.  134 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+

Acting – A-

Technical – B+

Overall B+


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By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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