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'Foxcatcher' Bennett Miller Makes Another Great Film About the American Dream

6/17/2014

By Sasha Stone
TheWrap

When John Steinbeck wryly observed that most Americans disdained socialism as if they were "temporarily embarrassed millionaires" whose ship had yet to come in, he had no idea just how many millions of hard working self-made millionaires the country would someday spawn — how many would actually attain that American dream, and how many would come to believe that this world is designed for them, that they have a right to take whatever they want whenever they want it.

In "Foxcatcher" we meet one of them: John du Pont, heir to a family fortune who has his entire way of life bought and paid for — every win, every success at school, even his friends. Du Pont, portrayed in a career-changing turn by Steve Carell, is a desperately lonely man. He is the walking embodiment of the notion that money can't buy happiness, nor can it buy love, nor can it buy admiration or real success, particularly for someone whose wealth is entirely inherited.  Someone with nothing much to work for, live for, strive for, nothing left to achieve for himself.

Also read: How Steve Carell Created a Character Without Humor in 'Foxcatcher'

Du Pont's interest in wrestling was supposed to be that achievement he made for himself. Living under the shadow of his arrogant mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, du Pont fumbles around while people let him succeed because he's so phenomenally wealthy you don't even get near him unless you're ready to play softball.

This point is driven home when Mark Schultz (an excellent Channing Tatum) tells du Pont that his brother (another excellent Mark Ruffalo) can't be bought. That part of the relationship dynamic will dangle an insidious noose around their necks and ultimately lead to tragedy.

The film's heat is set to low simmer as you head for the climax – and because the story is pulled from real-life headlines, viewers will likely know what's coming.  But Bennett Miller, with three films so far under his belt, usually saves his best for the last few minutes of his movies, and "Foxcatcher" is no exception.

That is what makes Miller's work so compelling. You wait and you wait and you wait, and then it pays off.  The pay-off here is more subtle than you might expect, with none of the uplift "Moneyball" had or the closure that "Capote" gave.  But it is far more haunting, because this is a story that doesn't have closure and it doesn't have uplift. Lives are ruined. Period.

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What drives John du Pont's obsession with Mark is a bit of a mystery.  There seems to be physical attraction there, perhaps even love. But du Pont doesn't really know how to have relationships. All he knows how to do is buy and control, then pretend he has made something with his own hands. He knows somewhere deep inside that he doesn't, not really. That eats away at him.  His sense of entitlement has swollen to the point where he wants people to think of him as a great man, a ruler, a leader, a golden eagle.

Carell will likely be the focus of much of the praise for "Foxcatcher." He utterly disappears inside du Pont, presenting a dark and mostly unlikable lead. His mere presence is unsettling.

But his cold, heartless demeanor — literally, this is a man no one likes — is offset by the other two leads, the extremely likable Ruffalo and Tatum. Tatum challenges himself here, unearthing that vulnerability we've always known he had in him but haven't seen much of in the roles he's played. He punishes himself for allowing his own integrity to be bought and sold. His counterpoint is Ruffalo who gives the film its solid moral center. You do good work, you don't get bought off, you stand up for what's right. And it gets you nothing.

Also read: Cannes at the Halfway Point: Where's the Excitement?

What does this say about American culture overall? If you want to go digging you can find an indictment in "Foxcatcher," as I have. But you could also see it as simply a story that probes an unhealthy relationship with a psychotic man. You have these options because Miller has chosen, as he often does, to leave it up to you.

What happened is not up for debate, but why it happened remains a mystery. It bears repeating that it isn't common in American film to see this kind of ambiguity.

The movie is produced by another child of privilege, Megan Ellison. With her support of substantial filmmakers like Miller, Kathryn Bigelow and David O. Russell, Ellison is an avenging angel, of sorts, working to fix some of the problems that plague modern-day Hollywood. She is the reverse example of someone like du Pont. Her vast inherited wealth has motivated her to support the arts, which serves as a meaningful counter to the film itself. With the freedom of expression she provides, we are treated once again to a film without any outside pressure to dumb it down.

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Echoes of the American dream have long obsessed Miller, who seems incapable of making a bad film. "Capote" looked at the artist obsessed with story. "Moneyball" looks at the retired baseball star reaching for a longshot moment of glory. Now "Foxcatcher," his third one-word title, is about grasping for something that isn't really there: achievement without hard work, a room full of trophies that were bought and paid for, the self-centered satisfaction of destroying another life just because you want to.

In a rigged game, where the fox is let out of the cage so the privileged participants can pretend to really be hunting, who's to say that killing the fox wasn't fair?

The post 'Foxcatcher' — Bennett Miller Makes Another Great Film About the American Dream appeared first on TheWrap.

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