Steve Carell, richly deserving his recently minted Oscar nomination, portrays the scion of the American chemical dynasty as a heartbreakingly creepy, incestuously inbred superpatriot whose preoccupation with Americana and misplaced mommy issues leads him to adopt a cadre of wrestlers to live and train on his sprawling estate. Vanessa Redgrave – in all of her three minutes of screen time – exonerates any lingering Freudian implications about du Pont’s mother, Jean, a world class horse trainer. With just a flicker of those legendary eyes and a pursing of the lips, Redgrave telegraphs, with a quietly, comically poignant thunderstorm intensity, her profound disappointment and confusion over the oddball son she raised.
You see, John du Pont runs around in a Revolutionary War three-quarter length jacket (when he’s not rocking a cheesy wrestling coach track suit), buys tanks to tool around his property, goes skeet shooting with the local police, insists that people call him “Eagle” or “Golden Eagle,” snorts cocaine, and decorates his home in a faux colonial style that would have been tacky during the ’76 Bicentennial. In other words, he would be a great addition to the Bush family. Sorry.
He aims to overshadow his mother’s equestrian accomplishments by helping Mark Schultz (and thereby ‘Murica) bring home the gold at the ’88 Seoul Olympics. Du Pont is a pathetically amateurish wrestler himself, with a very kinky preoccupation with singlets and wrestling mats. And an even kinkier preoccupation with the younger Schultz brother, as portrayed by Channing Tatum.
Tatum hasn’t gotten the accolades garnered by Carell as du Pont or by Mark Ruffalo as Mark’s older brother David. That’s a shame. Tatum turns in a brilliant variation of his standard lunkhead routine, swiping a bit from James Dean’s Cal Trask (East of Eden) playbook as the wounded, ever-ignored baby brother. It is this broken spirit that connects Mark with du Pont in a toxic brew of clammy co-dependence. As du Pont continues to derail the younger Schultz with his sociopathic manipulation, the thick-headed heartbreak of Tatum’s emotionally stunted Mark Schultz is palpable. His breakdown in a hotel room at the Olympic trials is epically harrowing (if not a touch overbaked).
Ruffalo, as always, is scruffy perfection as Tatum’s brother. He captures the pathetic swagger of an athlete whose accomplishments were forgotten before they even really began. Olympic gold for these brothers is more of a dead end than an open door. Ruffalo is warm and lovely and appropriately stilted in all of his interactions with family, not quite as stunted as his brother Mark … but awfully close. When he finally meets his tragic end, it is both shocking and expected but no less horrifying.
Director Bennett Miller, like Carell and Ruffalo, also has been nominated for an Oscar, though his recognition is arguably the least deserving. Bennett is brave enough to let the quiet moments speak for themselves, capitalizing on the expressiveness of his crackerjack cast to great effect. The movie’s strongest moments are in its silences; the most telling exchanges from a wordless look of disdain from one character to another.
However, the film’s pacing is ponderous, and, occasionally, Bennett allows the flick to devolve into TV movie clichés: Mark Schultz now has highlights in his hair … so he must be having an illicit relationship with du Pont; Mark Schultz is surrounded by beer bottles, so he must be letting training slide; Du Pont is snorting cocaine during a helicopter ride, so he must be a reckless ne’er do well; David Schultz can’t remember simple things like picking up his kids from school, so let’s have him write notes on his own hand like “pick up kids” which must show what a regular Joe he is. Ain’t that cute?
Regardless, the film is very much worth seeing, for the implications it offers regarding the super rich in this country … of their inability to understand the hopes and dreams of the rest of us, of their inability to see that we aren’t here as chattel for their amusement. To me, that was the most powerful message of all in the film, like Les Miserables in a wrestling ring.
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)
In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.
My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.