Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo
Spoilers Within: Yes
Bennett Miller’s latest is a glacial, lonely and oft distressing reflection of the poisonous effects of wealth and solitude, and the skewed quest for the American dream.
The story tracks the motions of awkward loner Mark Schultz (Tatum) as we find him at a sort-of crossroads, holding on to past glories and mumbling through a patriotic speech in front of a hall full of disinterested students before cutting to his solitary life eating alone in his empty flat. It’s here that he receives a call on behalf of John du Pont (Carell): a wealthy, self-appointed dignitary who desires Mark’s skills as an olympics wrestler to create an on-site team to take them to victory at the 1988 Summer Olympics. As a way to step out of the shadow of his older brother Dave (Ruffalo) – who is also a celebrated olympic wrestler – Mark agrees to occupy the cabin on du Pont’s estate where his true, insidious intentions are slowly revealed.
As is evident by numerous reports of audience walkouts, Foxcatcher isn’t quite the thriller that regular cinema-goers were lead to believe. Miller’s approach is purposefully unapologetic in its emotionlessness, focusing not on the fated true-life events but rather the (initially) differing personalities of mentor and mentee, as well as the fraternal relationship between the brothers Schultz in the face of immeasurable wealth and psychological influence.
The concept of ‘comedic actor in serious role’ is not a new one (see Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind etc.) and has been repeated ad nauseam in the run-up to Foxcatcher‘s release, but despite that, it’s a terrific, career-defining performance. Carell embodies du Pont in both personality and physicality, glottal stop and all, giving the film a fascinating insight into this chilly and arrogant persona. This is none better seen than in the moments of elongated silence: the pauses that give access to his delusions of how others function. His pre-film life is very briefly touched upon: his domineering, icy mother (Vanessa Redgrave) denying him real childhood interactions aside from paying others to be his friends and his apathy toward her predilection to horse-riding. This translates directly to his adulthood: using wealth as an opportunity to create not only new ‘friends’, but an entirely new sporting venture – one that his mother debases as ‘low’ – in an act of petty defiance. The desperately lonely character even parades his new sport in front of his mother in an amateurish display of acceptance.
Irrespective of the enormity of Carell’s performance, and the compelling, visceral anger of Tatum’s, it’s the heartfelt turn from Ruffalo that serves as the counterbalance to the film: his Dave drawing a line down the middle of du Pont and Mark, wherein the film finds its strengths. A moment in which Dave unsuccessfully tries to think of a positive adjective to be included in a narcissistic documentary for du Pont, by du Pont, speaks volumes about his motivations for familial and financial safety, yet the apparent loathing toward his ‘mentor’ adds a layer of unpredictability to a character who – until this point – was the affectionate, friendly opposite to Mark’s introvert.
Where the film ultimately falters is in the vagueness of the time in which it all takes place. The first two acts of the film are clear enough, set in the lead-up to the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, but once this momentous event has passed the film hops forward in time without incident, a confusing turn that is only understood upon further reading of the true story. These decisions are understandable: to anchor the characters and to maintain focus within the estate, the film needed to keep to a rigid, linear timeline so as not to give too much of a spotlight to their lives between the end of the competition and before the fateful event. In reality, there was no overlap between the brothers staying at the farm, and their story didn’t occur until the late 1980s to early 1990s: the film condenses this to a period of four years from 1984 (more can be read about that here). These kinds of fabrications aren’t entirely unexpected, but the ambiguity in which it’s told serves to harm the somewhat rushed finale rather than give space for the ending to breath.
Greig Fraser’s cinematography begs special mention, here is an exemplary work that syncs perfectly with Miller’s vision: the wide shots of the Foxcatcher estate presents it as a stark contrast to the claustrophobic interiors littered with memento’s and trophies. There’s scarcely a shot that isn’t held for an almost uncomfortable amount of time, allowing the audience to comb the screen for any telling signs of character. These long takes are no better handled than in the aforementioned faux-documentary scene or the frightening hotel room breakdown, but in a film full of visually arresting scenes it’s hard to choose which uses the space in the more creative way.
Foxcatcher is an unrelentingly bleak and mostly laugh-free study of the masculinity of pride, egotism and jealousy, bolstered by three fantastic core performances, with a devastating – if rushed – final act. It’s Miller’s third film about the hunt for the american dream, and hopefully not his last.