Based on true events, Foxcatcher tells the story of three men; Mark and David Schulz, brothers who each won Olympic gold medals in the 80’s, and Jon du Pont, heir to the fortune and estate of one of America’s most wealthy families. When Mark is approached by Jon and offered the chance to join team Foxcatcher and represent the USA in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he snatches at the chance and tries to convince his older brother to join him. Unwilling to uproot his family, Mark is forced to go it alone for the first time and it isn’t long before he falls under the corrupting influence of Du Pont’s power. As the Olympics approaches and David re-enters the picture in an attempt to help train team foxcatcher, rivalry and jealousy takes hold and tragedy strikes.
Bennett Miller, director of Moneyball and Capote, has made a modern classic with Foxcatcher; a drama filled with human complexities and one that thrills on many levels. It’s a quiet film, literally and figuratively, filled with long silences that could prove awkward for the popcorn munching crowd, as Miller attempts to show and not tell us what emotional state our characters are in. Rather than have the main players spout out monologues about the way they feel, it’s instead expressed through some kind of physical act, often through the sport itself. In the first scene that the brothers share, it has very little dialogue at all, as the two begin to train together. As they try to pin each other, you can see the frustration on Marks face as he struggles against his older brother. The match ends in a bloodied nose and the rivalry between the two brothers is masterfully set up without more than four lines of dialogue. This struggle for power carries on through the majority of the film, as Du Pont takes to the ring himself during training and even participates in armature matches where his wins have the distinct smell of bribery about them. Whether it’s in a hug, a look or indeed a wrestling match, a lot is said through these actions and it’s exciting to guess what that is. This is storytelling at its very best and Miller refrains from using any technical tricks in the way he shoots the film, allowing nothing to detract from the story he wants to tell. Whilst this could very well mean that Foxcatcher will lose out this award season to something as technically ambitious as Birdman, it’s actually the better film, telling a complex story in a narratively straight forward way.
Of course with so much of the films success hindering on the physicality of the characters, it’s important that the right performers are cast. All three leads in this are sensational with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo putting in career best performances. The main talking point out of the three is Carell however, who like comic actors before him, takes a turn toward the dark side in his portrayal of John Du Pont. Wearing a hooked, prosthetic nose in an attempt to look more like Du Pont helps only a little to transform him and it’s through his mannerisms and voice that he truly becomes his character. For some, this type of role for the actor who is arguably most famous for his dim-witted weatherman in Anchorman and the infamous “I love lamp” line, taking on a role like this may seem like a tall order, but in truth his comedic background only helps his performance. There’s a pathetic quality to John Du Pont, portrayed here as needy and socially awkward, all of which are qualities that could be attributed to his Michael Scott character from the American version of The Office. There are in fact moments through the film that feel taken straight from that kind of comedy, as Du Pont stages a speech in front of the wrestlers in an attempt to impress his mother or as he brings in a camera crew to make a film where they coarse people to say how much of a mentor he is to them, moments where silence and awkward glances are as prevalent as the original show . It isn’t undercutting Carell’s performance in anyway when I say that and his performance is much more sinister and more deeply layered than anything he has done before.
Channing Tatum also impresses as Mark Schulz and actually surprised me a lot more than Steve Carell. From the moment we meet his character, Tatum wears a face of resentment, embittered by the lack of respect and honour he feels owed to him after winning a gold medal. There’s a slight Neanderthal-like way in which he moves and carries himself, something which is entirely deliberate. He throws so much energy into his role and performs to a level that I never thought possible and that itself is exciting to watch. Finally, Mark Ruffalo rounds out the three leads and he suffers most in the sense that everybody knows how great an actor he is anyway. His turn here is fantastic and he is as great to watch as ever, however when compared to the sheer surprise of Carell and Tatum, he is at times is overshadowed. The three performances are undoubtedly a big part of why Foxcatcher works as well as it does, but there’s so much more going on beyond them too. It is a very human film that deals primarily with obsession, paranoia and jealousy, but on familial level. Mark Schulz and John Du Pont are mirror images of each other, both seeking a way to escape the shadow of their family members and at the same time prove themselves capable of great achievements in an attempt for approval and ultimately love. What screen writers, Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye do so well though is take these desires and emotions and put them into a wider context as well, tying them into the American dream and the corruptive nature of power.
In successfully tackling these big themes and relating them to a personal story, Foxcatcher makes for a riveting cinematic experience. Some people have claimed that it is a joyless film and they’d be right on a purely superficial level. The story itself is a darkly intense one and tragic, but there is still joy to be found in the jaw dropping performances, the beautiful cinematography and the subtlety of Bennett Miller’s filmmaking. Foxcatcher is compelling, tense and exhilarating; a master class in the art of the storytelling and performance. Put simply, I loved it.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com