Foxcatcher, director Bennett Miller’s latest blend of sport and human drama, is an actor’s movie. That’s not so much an insult as an observation. Understated and very casually-paced, the film features three pristine performances in service to a story that builds tension leading to inevitable tragedy. The ending will be a shocker to those unfamiliar with the true story upon which this is based, but Miller and his screenwriters muddle the timeline and specifics of the events in question. The film’s potency takes a hit as a result.
The story concerns multimillionaire John du Pont (Carell) and his efforts to recruit and train a wrestling squad for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. As the movie opens, Mark Schultz (Tatum), a gold medal winner in the 1984 Los Angeles games, is struggling to scrape by. He’s eating Ramen noodles and making speeches to grade-schoolers for any money he can get. One day he is contacted by du Pont and invited to his property. After a pitch meeting, Mark decides to move to du Pont’s farm, Foxcatcher, in Pennsylvania and train at the facility he’s set up on the grounds. du Pont also wants Mark’s celebrated brother, David (Ruffalo), also a 1984 gold medalist, to join the team. When he does, the dynamic among the three men becomes irredeemably strained.
Miller has a knack for extracting tension out of stories involving men and sport. Similar to 2011’s Moneyball, Foxcatcher is a slowly-paced, almost to the point of tedium, character study. du Pont, who’s always led a life of privilege, has no friends to speak of and has a serious inferiority complex due to his mother’s (Redgrave) criticism of just about everything he does. He sees the wrestling team as a way to validation. He often calls himself the coach when he’s really just the money behind the operation. Mark has been living in the shadow of David at least since the 1984 games, as David is viewed as a recruitable wrestling coach and has a loving family. Jealousy and inadequacy are at the heart of this story. In the film’s final moments, it all boils over in an act that still has people confused to this day. While what’s portrayed is disquieting, the details of the case are strangely jumbled and lead to a great deal of confusion after the shock wears off. Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman don’t tell the audience of a key passage of time leading up to the tragedy. Additionally, little is conveyed in the way of a central character’s mental state that played a part in the proceedings. These are basic details that would have made the final frames not only make a bit more sense, but also much more commanding.
Socially awkward and always a bit off-kilter, Steve Carell successfully makes the crossover to full-on drama with his portrayal of John du Pont. Carell has shown signs of dramatic capability going back to 2007’s Dan in Real Life, but here he’s completely convincing as a man with all the resources in the world and no one to share them with. As the quietly determined and desperate Mark, Channing Tatum turns in quietly authoritative work. A scene in which he trashes a hotel room after losing is sternly effective, as are middle passages as he falls more and more under du Pont’s spell. The always-dependable Mark Ruffalo breathes much life into the character of David as a family man and athlete.
Foxcatcher is never less than a compelling drama, even if it does make some mistakes in its climactic sequence. The errors are ultimately forgivable as Miller successfully pulls the viewer into this complicated story of one-upmanship coupled with constant mental and physical pressure. It also addresses what it must be like to be on top of world one day as a gold medalist and completely forgotten a mere three years later. Featuring three fine performances and intriguing, coldly effective storytelling, Foxcatcher is compulsory viewing for genre fans.
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Length: 134 Minutes
Rating: R for some drug use and a scene of violence.
Theatrical Release: November 14, 2014 (NY/LA)
Directed by: Bennett Miller
Written by: E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman
Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller