Thursday, 12 February 2015

Foxcatcher (2015) - Movie Review

I have a certain fascination with actors who are able to transform themselves for a role. Be it through method, heavy make-up work or however else, it’s very interesting seeing what an actor is willing to do for their craft. One of my personal favourite examples of this are Christian Bale in The Machinist and Batman Begins, where he turned himself into a real-life Billy Halleck and emaciated himself for the former and then bulked up to play Batman in the latter. As much as I would hate to be that man’s stomach during all that, I have to give credit where it’s due for pulling that off. I bring this all up because, given the majority of posters I saw of this movie before going to see it myself, this film seems to be banking on the transformative role Steve Carell has in it. One look at the barely-recognisable Carell and I can’t say I blame them. But did it pay off?

The plot: Olympian wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), down on his luck and jealous of his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo)’s success, accepts an sponsorship offer from multimillionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carell) to join his wrestling team Foxcatcher. In the lead-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Mark trains on Foxcatcher Farms, bonds with the rather eccentric Du Pont and before too long, Du Pont’s sinister side begins to show itself.
I’ll admit that I was reluctant about this one because I’ve seen comedic actors go outside of their comfort zones and find much derision; as much as I think The Number 23 is a decent movie, the fact that barely anyone else does pretty much ensures that Jim Carrey will never attempt something like that again. Now, as much as I would love to just come on here and scream “gimmick casting!” at the top of my lungs, or whatever the typing equivalent of that is, Carell is legitimately unsettling in this movie. He pulls a Robin Williams in Law & Order: SVU here with how well he plays against type, only he manages in a different way to Williams here. He doesn’t raise his voice so much, unlike Williams did in the most memorable scene of that episode, but instead he creates a similar feeling of dread around him through being softer and more quietly intimidating.

This is made even more impressive considering, at least with how he’s written, Du Pont reminds me a lot of Mr. Burns. The way he uses other people’s success to fuel his own ego, having people forfeit in competitions against him to the same effect, right down to the shaky relationship with his mother; at a couple of points, I kept expecting him to release the hounds on Dave Schultz. However, he doesn’t descend into Burns-brand cartoonish supervillainy at any point, nor does he comes across as a caricature by any other means; Carell plays it dead straight and, through both his performance and rather alienating appearance due to the make-up work, he pulls it off.

Sure, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are great here also, but make no mistake: This is Carell’s show and he’s making the most of it. That said, what makes this film work isn’t the actors on their own terms but rather their interactions with each other and the relationships between the characters. Mark and Dave’s relationship is remarkably well developed, getting across the animosity Mark feels for his brother as well as how much he genuinely cares about him at his core admirably. The scene where Mark loses one of his more important fights, showing his reaction to it and Dave’s attempts to console him afterwards, is easily one of the big highlights of the film dramatically speaking.

Actually, if I can renege slightly on a prior statement, the other big highlight in my opinion is when Mark is seen literally beating himself up while looking in the mirror; I may rag heavily on 22 Jump Street, but Channing has come leaps and bounds when it comes to his acting in the last few years. It shows a lot in his relationship with John Du Pont as well, the other major relationship at work here. Du Pont treats Mark, basically, like his own personal golem: Puffing up his sense of self-importance and patriotism to fulfil Du Pont’s whims, solely to give Du Pont his own feeling of self-importance by proxy.

Now, with all this said and done, this movie really sounds like a great bit of sports drama. Unfortunately, one of its greatest strengths ends up being its greatest weakness. The plot has a very slow build-up to it, which admittedly works for this kind of story, but it keeps feeling like it’s going too slowly and too low-key to keep interest. There is a lot of tension that’s built during the running time but the space between the more intense moments are that down-tempo that all that build-up is sapped away before it can capitalise on any real kind of pay-off. When a lot of the plot-important moments occur, like the finale and what results from it, instead of feeling like a heavy powder keg explosion from what precedes it, it’s more like a single heartbeat on an otherwise flat-lining EKG; it gets back your interest in the proceedings, but only just.

All in all, this is a very well-written and acted movie with Steve Carell joining the great short list of comedic actors who can actually accomplish being in a more serious role. This is unfortunate, given how the film is mostly made up of scenes that played way too subtly to engage sandwiching a few really great moments. There are the trappings of a great movie in here, but as it stands it’s just okay.

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