Much like his previous directorial effort Moneyball, Bennett Miller’s new film Foxcatcher is not a prototypical sports movie. If Moneyball is the mathematician’s sports film (a la A Beautiful Mind), then Foxcatcher is the sports film for psychiatrists or detectives. The overwhelming feeling of dread, obsession, and bleakness bears more similarities to a film like Zodiac than any film about wrestling. Olympic wrestling acts more as a backdrop to this true psychological drama of family and privilege. More importantly, it allows for three actors to transcend their general perceptions and deliver in a triumvirate of career defining performances. I can’t exactly say it was an enjoyable film to sit through, but given the material it’s hypnotically mesmerizing nevertheless.
When the film begins, brothers Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) have already reached the pinnacle of Olympic wrestling by winning gold medals. Despite success, Mark cannot seem to escape the overwhelming shadow of his older brother. A window of opportunity comes in the form of eccentric millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell), who offers Mark a place to train for the upcoming Olympics on his Foxcatcher ranch in Pennsylvania. Du Pont prides himself as a “patriot”, but its apparent that he’s been struggling to escape a shadow of his own; his mother (Vanessa Redgrave).
Foxcatcher is a slow burn portrayal of public events and the disintegration of various relationships. We see a family torn apart, tensions constantly turned to 11, and ultimately a murder. On a close examination, I took away that it’s most importantly a film which exposes the morally corrupting power of wealth and the pursuit of “The American Dream.” Much of this is drawn from Carell’s depiction of du Pont. He’s born into an incredibly wealthy American family, but he never earned anything himself. His recruitment of Mark Schultz symbolizes his desire to simultaneously become an athlete and a wrestler without putting the work in. Wealth can inspire entitlement; since du Pont could not fulfill his aspirations through hard work, he bought those desires.
In opposition to du Pont is Dave Schultz. In the film, Mark tells him that Dave “cannot be bought.” It takes du Pont a moment to fully process this declaration albeit unsuccessfully. Dave, unlike du Pont, became both a coach and an athlete through dedication. Dave chose to give up these professions if they interfered with his family commitments. Both du Pont and even Mark are unable to this. While du Pont cannot entirely buy Dave, he does buy Mark and their relationship is one of the truly unsettling parts of Foxcatcher. It’s a twisted father/son dynamic; we hear Mark give speeches praising du Pont in written prose by du Pont, they snort cocaine, and console their feelings in one another. The three men are all so different from each other, and their relationships alone are more than enough to carry this film.
A lot has been said about Steve Carell’s performance. He’s completely unrecognizable, transformed under a prosthetic nose and make-up. Director Bennett Miller withdraws on fully introducing Carell through close-up for a couple of minutes. Because of this, he feels alien like throughout the entire film; distant, cold, and unsettling. It’s externally a change, but the truly haunting power of Carell’s work is internal and performed. His ticks, mannerisms, and speech patterns produce a “coiled snake” who we’re waiting for to strike.
It is a testament to both the actors and the director that these internal character dynamics are as effective as they are. Almost all of the emotions and changes are reserved and internalized. Tatum is the only one who is given moments to erupt with emotion, but they never feel out-of-place. Both he and du Pont live in the shadows of others. His outbursts are culminations of events and circumstance. Channing Tatum, who for a long period of time was one of my least favorite actors working, turned me into a fan with his work here. He embodies the role of a hulking wrestler who does not appear to be very bright to its fullest.
I feel I’m in the minority by saluting Mark Ruffalo as the strongest actor in the film. All three lead actors are at the top of their respective games, but Dave is the easiest person to over simplify. He’s the loving, wise, and dedicated older brother that I’m sure a lot of people have had. At the same time, he exudes something that neither Mark nor du Pont has; confidence. While he’s soft-spoken and most likely frustrated, his quiet demeanor presents him as honest but struggling with his own convictions. My favorite scene in the film is when Dave is told to praise du Pont as a great coach for a documentary du Pont is manufacturing. He tries to lie, but is unable to betray his beliefs. Ruffalo says so much with so little, which is pretty ironic for an actor who so effortlessly portrayed the Hulk not too long ago.
While there is so much to admire in Foxcatcher, I do not think it will appeal to everyone. Its slow burn pacing might distance you, but I view that as an advantage to let the uneasiness get that much more under your skin. It’s an incredibly cold film as well both in substance and in its style. The cinematography is very bleak, oftentimes eclipsed with fog and winter elements. These choices make the warm moments all the more relieving. The conclusion is both shocking and inevitable based on the sense of dread throughout the entire movie. If you do know the true events, it won’t really surprise you. If you don’t, then Foxcatcher may take you on that much more of a journey. Aside from a few minor nitpicks and slow moments, this is one of my favorite films of 2014. I do recommend it to everyone for the top-notch performances, but your own preferences as far as what films you enjoy will dictate how you feel coming out of the theater.