Release Date: January 9th, 2015 (UK)
Genre: Biography; Drama; Sport
Starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo
You could single out any number of attributes and relate them to Bennett Miller’s directorial portfolio, but depth wouldn’t be one. The New Yorker has created four films since 1998 and, at a rate of one film every four or five years, Miller obviously doesn’t take job choices lightly. After a seldom seen documentary feature called The Cruise (1998) and his critically acclaimed biographical drama Capote (2005), Miller tried his hand at exploring the inner workings of American sport on the big screen. Moneyball (2011) was polished and affecting, but never set out to irritate because it was never meant to be that kind of story, just as baseball isn’t that kind of sport.
Foxcatcher, on the other hand, is that kind of story. Whereas Moneyball told a consumable tale that reflected the everyday popularity of baseball, Miller’s latest piece bathes in the sweaty discomfort and disassociation of wrestling. It’s uncensored, but subtly so. It’s damn good too.
Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is an amateur wrestler. We first meet him as he somewhat timidly relays semi-encouraging words to a less than half full hall of school children. Perhaps timidness is the wrong adjective. Mark isn’t necessarily a shy person, but his inability to open up is reflected in his distanced demeanour. All he knows is an everyday, basic existence. And amateur wrestling. Tatum excels as the hard-boiled grappler, his physicality more than matched by a powerhouse emotional range that develops alongside the story. He hobbles as you’d imagine a wrestler would, and wears sweatpants and an unforgiving exterior in and out of the gym, unlike the more outgoing Dave.
Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) is Mark’s older brother, the man Mark is filling in for during the opening scene. Dave is also an Olympic champion and, for one reason or another, the more popular brother. Ruffalo brings an awkward charm to the role; we’re instantly drawn to him as he graciously interacts with American wrestling officials, Ruffalo dragging his toes as he shakes hands as if to highlight an inert clumsiness. The siblings train shortly thereafter, and Foxcatcher unleashes its first taste of the brutish sport — as Dave gets the better of Mark the latter lashes out, emphasising Mark’s simmering displeasure towards his overshadowing older brother.
Both men receive the opportunity to head up an all-American wrestling team at Foxcatcher farm, funded by John du Pont (Steve Carell). “Du Pont, a dynasty of wealth and power”, are the words that echo from a History Channel-esque montage about the rich family. Mark accepts, aspiration outweighing alertness, whereas family man Dave rejects. Though the film breeds an air of morbidity from the outset, it really kicks into gear upon the arrival of a terrifying looking du Pont. The three primary actors deliver wholly, but it is Carell’s skin-crawling turn as the internally maniacal financier that’ll stick in the memory and continue to probe long after the final pinfall. Assisted by facial prosthetics more suited to the latest House of Wax horror instalment, Carell maintains false poise that’s ready to burst. He’s devilish and utterly detestable.
Miller’s film teases the inevitability of chaos bred from a relationship between the three men, but refrains from delivering on the fact until the final act. Much of the first hour and a half of Foxcatcher instead focuses on the relationship between du Pont and Mark, a partnership that is clearly on iffy terrain from go. Their first face to face meeting at the farm is one of a catalogue of tension filled moments; du Pont sells his wrestling project to Mark (the multimillionaire wants to foster a gold medal batch of grapplers) under the guise of honour and patriotism. Rob Simonsen and West Dylan Thordson’s score is noticeably absent here as we hang on du Pont’s every word in tandem with Mark.
Although the screenplay relays a number of striking lines — “Horses are stupid. Horses eat and shit, that’s all they do” is a particular stand-out that comes from the mouth of du Pont, breeder of amateur wrestlers — the piece doesn’t necessarily rely on words to succeed. Rather, it’s about tension and ambiguity and the toxic atmosphere burning the three men involved. The overarching moodiness serves a purpose, but it is also a necessity given the real life framework. Foxcatcher resembles David Fincher’s Gone Girl in many ways, though the Gillian Flynn-penned film alleviates tension via brief moments of humour, unlike Foxcatcher. This incessantly serious approach works given the context, and Miller’s tactful management of the potentially tricky sullenness is a true masterclass in pressure-building on screen.
Taking all of the above into consideration, it’s unsurprising that the camera refuses to shy away from raw moments — shots are dynamic when showing matches and totally still otherwise. Greig Fraser’s cinematography effectively positions the audience in amongst any wrestling and as such captures the fleshy warring in full flow. Both Tatum and Ruffalo ought to be commended on their very immersive abilities, and it’s also worth noting the most horrifying celebratory expression in recent memory from Carell after a victory.
The culmination is game of pawn playing, a deliberation of moral values, and of blind understanding. Three men are at the forefront, their rapport with each other and with amateur wrestling challenged. Foxcatcher might only be Bennett Miller’s fourth film in almost 20 years, but it is absolutely his most accomplished.
Images credit (©): Sony Pictures Classics