Published on December 17th, 2014 | by Dan Nicholls1
The director of Capote and Moneyball is back with another excellent entry, Foxcatcher, based on a true story about Olympic wrestling and deep emotional manipulations.
Foxcatcher is a riveting film about men grappling with other men in wrestling rings as well as with their resentment and jealousy outside the court. It’s a slow burn of a psychological character study that forces you to dig deeper into the motivations and egos of men who close themselves off to worlds beyond any physical or figurative competitive arenas. Stuffed with anxiety-inducing silence and slowly tightening tension, Foxcatcher is bound to stand as one of the finest dramas of the fall season.
The movie is based on real life events that took place in the 1980s and 90s; those familiar with the story will obviously know what the suspense is leading up to, but even those unfamiliar with the true tragic tale will be tipped off by the growing unease that the story isn’t going to wind up in a happy place. It’s a film that explores the duality of loyalty and betrayal within three very different but equally complicated men, and it doesn’t offer any easy answers or resolutions for its trio of leading characters.
As the film opens, former Olympic champion wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is seen living an unfulfilled life. He doesn’t have many friends to speak of, and spends more time practicing in gyms than searching for jobs. His older brother and fellow Olympian, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), is leading a considerably healthier life married with children and coaching at a wrestling facility. The two men, so similar yet pulled in drastically opposite directions, nonetheless morph together as one when entwined on the wrestling mats. It’s through the sport that the two men — especially Mark — come alive. It gives Mark a feeling he’s unable to find in any other aspect of his life, and fears that his glory days may be behind him haunt the man at night. A surprise phone call from an eccentric millionaire named John du Pont (Steve Carell) gives Mark a renewed sense of purpose, but leads both brothers to places of jealousy, desire, competition, and eventually irreversible physical and mental damage.
The majority of the film focuses on the relationship between Mark and John, with the latter taking the former under his wing as a surrogate son and protégé. John’s the heir to the du Pont family fortune and legacy but has lived his life failing to amount to anything worthy of his mother’s love and respect (Vanessa Redgrave appears in a few scenes as the elderly matriarch Jean du Pont). The du Pont estate serves as a training facility for Olympic wrestling hopefuls, and John brings in Mark to convince his brother Dave to move his life to the Foxcatcher training grounds so they can mold the next great American champions. What does John get out of all of it? The chance to fulfill his inner desire to be the coach, mentor, and father figure to the best athletes in the world. He wants to leave his own mark on the legacy of the du Pont name, and catch his own fox as a prize to bring home to his mother.
Dread mounts as director Bennett Miller, in what is only his third narrative feature film, expertly builds mounting paranoia and jealousy between the trio of Mark, John, and Dave. Miller observes the action from a cautious distance, only bringing viewers in close for moments of intimacy and raw honesty between Mark and John. The two develop an unhealthy co-dependency, and Miller doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable moments of violence, drug abuse, and emotional manipulation between John and Mark. Following the Best Picture-nominated back-to-back successes of Capote and Moneyball, Foxcatcher caps off a triumphant hat trick for the filmmaker.
Foxcatcher remains enthralling throughout thanks in large part to the revelatory performance by Steve Carell and the equally strong work from both Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. The three men captivate from beginning to end, but it’s Carell, hidden under layers of heavy prosthetics, who surprises the most. His John du Pont becomes enviable, pitiable, and fearful along his tragic path. Tatum also undergoes some physical transformations to more closely resemble his real-life counterpart but also shines through the makeup to display a fully realized depiction of his character’s internal drive to regain his past glory. And as a man who gets pulled in deeper than he anticipated to du Pont’s delusions of grandeur, Mark Ruffalo gets perhaps the least showy part out of the three but holds his own in every scene.
What’s perhaps most commendable about Foxcatcher is that it disturbs you from the inside out; the film is never sensational, and its interests lay in the subconscious drive behind three men reaching for the gold before taking a look at the causes and consequences of their outward violent behaviors. It’s a deeper dig into the people behind the headlines, and the film concludes by leaving the audience to decide why John, Mark, and Dave all did what they did, and who they would become after their time together on Foxcatcher Farms. Bennett Miller has expertly crafted a gripping and engrossing character drama to stand toe-to-toe with 2014’s finest works.