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'Foxcatcher' Off-Target

'Foxcatcher'—Dir. Bennett Miller (Sony Pictures Classic)—3 Stars

Audiences familiar with Bennett Miller know better than to expect a clichéd motivational sports film from “Foxcatcher.” Famous for his stirring interrogations into the psychology of characters, the director of “Capote” and “Moneyball” is a pro at turning genre films into anticlimactic tragedies about ambition, power, and fame. Sure enough, “Foxcatcher” is another film precisely like that, and Miller’s intention to replicate his previous success is obvious. However, while “Foxcatcher” is even darker than Miller’s two previous films, it provides no real insight into the motives and actions of its characters. Superficial in its discussion about wealth and fame, it is ultimately a mediocre work pretending to be profound.

The film revolves around the triangle between three characters: Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a former Olympic wrestling champion who is now living on ramen and making a living by showing his medal to schoolchildren, Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), Mark’s protective brother and a more experienced wrestler, and John du Pont (Steve Carell), Mark’s ridiculously rich patron and the central figure of the relationship. Du Pont initially offers a world-class facility to Mark to prepare for the upcoming 1988 Seoul Olympics, but his morbid quest for control and vanity is the focus of the whole film.

Unfortunately, the director fails to delve into du Pont’s mentality and psychological development and instead only goes into great detail about just how creepy he is. He speaks inarticulately and walks stiffly. He is obsessed with guns and ornithology. He gives weird toasts that leave everyone confused. He demands that Mark practices at midnight and during weekends, but at the same time enthusiastically invites him to get drunk and do cocaine. Many of these weird behaviors do not link to each other or help audiences understand du Pont’s psychology, but they do have a significant role in distracting from the main storyline. It seems that the screenwriters just make a list of all the strangest impulses they can think of and stuff them randomly in the script. In the end, they attribute everything du Pont does to his cantankerous, disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave), an explanation that always comes in handy for writers seeking to create a Freudian psychopath.

Du Pont could have been a much more nuanced character: born with a prominent family name, he has been flattered and protected throughout his life, has never had the chance to really learn anything, and is not experienced enough to be brave, sociable, or independent. When he becomes aware that people respect him only for his money, he is plunged into a futile struggle to find his identity. On one hand, he wants to get rid of the superficial aura of fortune and be recognized for his true talent and virtue; on the other hand, at the painful realization of how weak and inept he actually is, he flees and hides behind his money, using it as his weapon against the world as he has always done. Clearly, the writers had this in mind when they worked on the outline of the story, as the first aspect of this struggle is the motive for du Pont to subsidize the Schultz brothers, and the second creates the struggle between him and the two. However, when they should have elaborated upon this notion with great detail, they only made him a stereotypical weirdo. The same mistake happens to the depiction of the ever reticent and cantankerous Mark, who turns out to suffer from the childhood trauma of parental divorce, another convenient and unimaginative excuse to be a creep.

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Foxcatcher
Channing Tatum stars in "Foxcatcher."

Nevertheless, as flawed as the script is, the actors still give a performance that is both brilliant and sometimes even credible (a huge feat considering the weakness of the story). Carell, totally unrecognizable, immerses himself completely in his paranoid character. When he becomes unreasonably aggressive, there is always a hint of sour humiliation in his demeanor, and when he seems to crash, his eyes still shine with ambition and arrogance. Moreover, Tatum shows his maturation as an actor, which make his two-dimensional role much more natural. However, even they could not save the film or hide the imperfections of the script.

In “Foxcatcher,” almost every character has some Freudian trauma, almost every minute tries to be dark, and almost every line desperately tries to remind audiences that they are watching a serious drama about the complexity of humanity. However, these efforts only serve to demonstrate that the profundity of a film is not proportional to the madness of the characters—a great theme can be easily destroyed by crude and unconvincing execution.

—Contributing writer Tianxing V. Lan can be reached at tianxinglan@college.harvard.edu.

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