BENNETT MILLER DRAGS AUDIENCES INTO THE DARK RECESSES OF EXCESSIVE DELUSION
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
History is littered with peculiar characters, those on the far margins of what might even be considered the abnormal element of society. “Littered” might be too strong a term, implying greater numbers than intended, because what I’m getting at here is a remote bordering on infinitesimally small sample, especially when you combine such extreme delusion with access to wealth and resources, granting the power to implement ideas that would otherwise never take shape beyond the mind.
Film offers harsh reflections, to be sure, but some, when expertly executed, become nearly impossible to gaze upon. Imagine the effect of the blinding power of the sun, not from a safe distance, but from a point at which you could also feel the skin blister and burn, hear the sizzle, smell your own sickly-sweet cooking flesh.
That encapsulates the experience I had watching “Foxcatcher,” the new film from Bennett Miller (“Capote” and “Moneyball”) during the press screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. Having settled into the Princess of Wales (a truly grand old auditorium, if ever there was one), I was already prepared, thanks to earlier festival buzz, for the shock of Steve Carell’s quite prominent prosthetic beak and the bludgeoning use of Channing Tatum’s lantern jaw and dead-eyed stare. I could even say I had dredged through my memories – without augmentation from the Internet – of the news briefings from the incidents to be portrayed. This was during a rather mature phase of the 24-hour news cycle, before the Internet and social media spawned the current media abominations of hapless and haphazard reporting of tragedy – taking the raw truth and cutting it up with conjecture and gossip in order to supply our cheap fixes.
But, looking back, I wasn’t ready for what Miller had in mind. He lulled me, as he likely will general audiences, with quiet discipline and tightly coiled focus. We see Mark Schultz (Tatum), an Olympic wrestler tending to life beyond the spotlight and glory of competition, showing off his medal to schoolchildren for a pittance, wolfing down meager sustenance, and working, training alone. We are not to pity him for his monastic lifestyle – not exactly. What Miller presents us with is a degree of dedication to a sport that lies far beyond the glamor and cultural status of, say, basketball or football, but it is no less impressive or frightening, when we watch Mark spar with his older brother David (Mark Ruffalo). The result is an expression of what happens when the mind, body and will transform something so raw and primal into action.
The very opposite of that, though, arrives with the appearance of John du Pont (Carell), the multimillionaire sponsor of Team Foxcatcher, his own pet project. The decidedly non-physical figure has grand delusions of leading a wrestling team into competition and the money to buy acquiescence. He has already culled together a group of anonymous hard bodies, cannon fodder to mold, but he needs top talent to lead and form the tip of the spear of Team Foxcatcher.
So, he seduces Mark, granting him a spot in the inner sanctum of his dark dream, convincing Mark that the two share the same goal. What Mark and du Pont actually have in common is a psychological remove from people and everyday life. Mark knows nothing but training, while du Pont has been hermetically sealed in a bubble of privilege and entitlement. Miller draws a sharp contrast when du Pont springs his full plan on Mark, coaxing him to invite David to join the team and the compound.
David, with his family and his well-rounded experiences, looks askew at the psychological isolation and the blatant declarations of pomposity from du Pont. It is easy to fall into the trap of forgetting what will happen, to succumb to a sense of hope for David, some escape because, after a while in this insane headspace, all I wanted was to surrender, to get away. With “Foxcatcher,” Miller has perfectly crafted an uncomfortable and claustrophobic world, a replication of du Pont’s small mind, but it is not the kind of place where audiences will want to take up even temporary residence. Enter at your own risk.