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: IMP Awards, Collider
Images credit (©): Sony Pictures Classics
22 thoughts on “Foxcatcher (2015)”
Good read Adam! I really enjoyed this film and you’ve definitely captured what’s good about it here. I had forgotten about that line but I like the fact you attribute it to a breeder of wrestlers!
Thanks Stu! It’s one of those that completely lived up to expectations for me, which I guess is fairly rare. That’s a great line – especially coming from du Pont!
Good review. Not a pick-me-up by any means, but it definitely contains some of the best performances of the past year.
Haha, it’s certainly not a bubbly night-in movie! Absolutely, three outstanding performances. Cheers Dan!
Nice review, Adam! I agree, it’s creepy and very cool to see Carell’s dramatic performance. The whole cast is great; funny how Tatum’s performance got the least attention when it was the pivotal role, I thought.
Yeah, it’s a shame that Tatum has missed out on a nomination. He deserves to be in the mix. Weirder still that he’s heading up the Team Oscar campaign again this year (something you’d expect would give him some sort of edge, but perhaps not). Thanks Cindy!
Another beautifully written review. I almost finished mine and that film had so much going on – I loved how Miller never judges the characters, just shows us the story and let’s us figure out why what happened, happened. Amazing performances from everyone too.
Thanks Sati. Yeah, totally agree – it’s obvious that there’s something sinister going on underneath the surface, but the characters aren’t all cut-and-dry.
Apart from being about 10-15 mins too long, I thought this was riveting stuff. Great performances. Fine review.
Thanks mate. Very riveting!
It’s astounding to think that this is only Miller’s third feature film as he’s quite adept behind the camera and has a way to cajole great performances out of his actors. I find the film to be so somber and a bit too long but the performances are ace all around.
Agreed Ruth, he’s a very accomplished director for someone with limited output. Ah that’s a shame, glad the performances held up for you.
A truly outstanding film with three incredible performances .. I have seldom been impressed by Tatum but he was great in this. This doesn’t get a Best Picture nomination but the dreadful, unsubtle American Sniper does?
Right?! What kind of world are we living in? Haha! Best I’ve seen Tatum. Really top film.
Good work Adam. I really liked this one and, like you, I feel it’s Miller’s strongest film to date. The performances are superb and Miller manages to hold it all together at a very deliberate pace.
I’m becoming quite the fan of Miller. I like his measured, probing approach. Thanks Mark!