Maybe it’s just me, but I wrestled a bit as a kid and saw more than enough of my coach without ever moving in with him. I’ll tell you right now, if that’s what cost me a shot at having my life blown up on the big screen for the world to enjoy, I’m okay with it, especially after seeing how messed up the protagonists in these two indie projects turn out.
Wrestling is of course a historic, primal sport, but the truth is, there aren’t enough fans out there to convince studios to make wrestling films based on the moves and skills perfected on the mat. In both of this match’s opponents — the current festival darling Foxcatcher and the 2011 indie success Win Win — filmmakers have used the sport as a metaphor to make larger points about their protagonist’s intense personal struggles. (The same is true, for that matter, with The Wrestler, the grim, 2008 film that earned Oscar nominations for both the Mickey Rourke title character and supporting actress Marisa Tomei.)
The wrestling association most people think about when seeing two guys sweating and grabbing at each other probably goes all the way back to the Greeks who grappled in the nude covered in oil. Our two contestants avoid that particular indignity, but not by much. They’re about extremely talented yet emotionally tormented young wrestlers who fall under the influence of coaches who pin a lot of hopes and dreams on their abilities but fall way short as role models. In a very real sense, the athletes at the heart of these films are fighting for their lives.
I saw Foxcatcher last May at Cannes, where it was one of a few films generating any actual excitement on the party circuit. It didn’t win the Palm d’Or but it did get get the nod for its director Bennett Miller, who previously nailed another offbeat character piece in a sports setting, Moneyball.
The story, based on true events, introduces us to the Schultz brothers, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and Mark (Channing Tatum), phenomenally talented wrestlers. Dave has already won the Olympic gold medal and doesn’t wrestle competitively any more, but Mark, who has also won Olympic gold, is looking to repeat his past glory. Into this family mix of emotions comes John du Pont (Steve Carell), an oddball heir to one of America’s richest family fortunes. Du Pont is so weird and off-putting that nobody could tolerate him if not for his money, some of which he has used to build a premier wrestling facility on the family compound.
These three characters and the actors who play them drive the entire film toward its sordid conclusion. What you need to know is that both brothers get pulled into du Pont’s web of pyschopathy and probably would have had the ability to pull themselves from it if the training facility wasn’t so A-plus. We’re treated to a film where the more bat-shit crazy du Pont is, the more the audience wants to see the brothers figure him out and leave. But because of their own weakness — emotional, not physical — they find themselves figuratively pinned to the mat.
The Defending Champion
If Foxcatcher competes at the high end of the wrestling arena, then Win Win tussles at the other side of the spectrum — the world of small town high school sports. The coach in this case is Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a low-powered New Jersey attorney who is desperately short of cash. He loves his wife and kids, hates his job, and volunteers to be the school’s wrestling coach, not so much out of passion as the need to be needed.
The wrestler in Win Win is so far from considering Olympic gold that he might as well be from the moon. Kyle (Alex Shaffer) turns up in town as a runaway and ends up living in Mike’s home because his own mother’s in rehab and his grandpa is in a home and not exactly mentally competent to handle a teenager.
The good news for Kyle is that Mike will have him, and the good news for Mike is that Kyle is the most stone-cold talented kid on a wrestling mat that anybody in this godforsaken New Jersey town has ever seen. In other words, Kyle is Mike’s ticket to getting something right.
This would all be great except that Mike has a terrible secret gnawing at him, and it’s got plenty to do with Kyle. The center can’t hold, and even a trip to the state championship won’t be glue enough to make things work out.
These are two really accomplished films that transcend the subject of wrestling. Foxcatcher is all about being a searing indictment of American empire and the abuse of wealth. Win Win just wants to be a great story full of relatable characters. They both succeed at what they set out to do.
The Cannes audience for Foxcatcher seemed a lot more excited going in than it did leaving the auditorium. Nobody knew exactly what to expect, and when they got a heavy dose of downer throughout, followed by a punctuation mark of pain at the end, it sent a lot of them scurrying to grab a glass or two of vin on La Croisette.
Bennet Miller will probably be up for an Oscar for his direction of Foxcatcher, and Tom McCarthy, who directed Win Win, is no slouch either, coming off The Visitor, another excellent indie film. These are different stories with different aspirations, but each is in the hands of a competent artist who has lots of nifty moves on the creative mat.
Despite the fact that Foxcatcher won the Cannes award for directing, it was Steve Carell’s performance that had everyone talking. He’s practically unrecognizable as du Pont, and manages to play a character with zero charisma about as charismatically as any performance I’ve seen lately. By the same token, Paul Giamatti’s work in Win Win is one of his best performances in a very solid career. He’s complicated, and all his flaws grip us because we can see ourselves in them. Carell’s performance is more cold and untouchable; you’re not likely to relate unless you’re a paranoid schizophrenic.
Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are rock-solid movie stars in Foxcatcher, and their presence certainly makes this film an A-list affair that will probably mean quite a bit at the international box office. It’s not every day you can get Magic Mike and the Incredible Hulk into the same film. The actors of Win Win are indie darlings, nicely cast, but not Must See in their own right.
In the end, it’s the tonal qualities of Foxcatcher and Win Win that set them distinctly apart. Foxcatcher says the world is a lousy, cynical place where things go terribly wrong and destroy lives. Win Win says the world is a lousy, cynical place where things often go terribly wrong but can still work out. Pessimism versus optimism. The way viewers see the world will say a lot about which of these films they’ll prefer.
I liked both of these films. Hell, I even liked all the wrestling in them, which reminded me of a time in my life when six minutes on the mat could reveal what a kid is made of. Foxcatcher, however, left me with a residual fog of depression for days after seeing it. It was powerful and disturbing but not necessarily enjoyable. After Win Win, I started proselytizing to my friends that they should go see it. Many will no doubt disagree, but for me, this Smack goes to the underdog, the scrappy fighter with a heart of gold, Win Win.
So, what’s your call? Vote in the poll above.