Foxcatcher is an interesting character study that struggles to convey insightful conclusions about its subjects.
Foxcatcher takes us back to the years leading up to the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul – a time in which former gold medalist wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) was still living in the shadow of his more famous gold medalist brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Things change when billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) approaches Mark with a proposition: he wants to propel American wrestling to Olympic greatness, and in doing so, inspire the country.
At first, John’s sponsorship (and mentorship) is everything that Mark could want, but after some time, the billionaire’s commanding manner and odd proclivities begin to wear the elite athlete down. When Dave finally concedes and joins Mark under John’s wing, it seems that the elder Schultz will bring balance to the partnership; however, as the Olympic games approach, it becomes gradually clearer that serious conflicts are brewing beneath the surface – conflicts that may consume all three men.
Director Bennet Miller (Capote, Moneyball) is known for making films that take meditative looks into the characters at the center of historical events, and Foxcatcher fits in step with that filmmaking motif. While it’s a showcase of three excellent and nuanced central performances, the distance the movie places between viewers and its subjects proves to be too great for it to establish a very meaningful connection.
Visually, Miller’s shorthand is wholly focused on the three characters at the center of narrative. The movie keeps close frame on each man (or men), alternating that intimacy with picturesque frames of the worlds they inhabit – from the long green sprawls and extravagant decorum of the du Pont estate, to the pristine and utilitarian simplicity of the gymnasium. In either instance, Miller establishes a stillness with the camera that places the viewer in the position of impartial observer, leaving the actors to convey what they must through both action and inaction.
While the meditative atmosphere is effective at evoking analytical interest in the subjects, it’s often too still, too quiet to hold that interest for as long as the scene requires. There are also a few technical blips in things like cinematography, and generally Miller could’ve edited individual scenes down in order to keep them more pointed and effective. All the same, the movie does compose some great silent movie-style sequences (more often about wrestling or training) that tell volumes of story with barely a line of dialogue. On the whole, when the focus is right, the ‘observe and conclude’ challenge of the directorial style truly works; but whenever focus slips – even a little – the technique instantly becomes overly obtuse and cold.
Both focus and accessibility tend to be the major issues of the script by writers E. Max Frey (Palmetto) and Dan Futterman (Capote). The film is concerned with the emotional narrative of three men stuck in a bromance triangle – but like the direction, it challenges the audience to infer much of what is being depicted beneath the surface. That becomes a real problem when the narrative fractures its focus in the second and third acts: at first, the film seems intently focused in Mark; in the second act, John begins to take center stage; and by the third act, Dave has pushed to the forefront.
One may argue that the shift is in fact a structural echo of the film’s thematic point, but it also makes it hard for the audience to ever get a complete arc out of any of the respective men. By the time the movie reaches its pivotal climax, we are so distanced from the characters that it’s hard to get an emotional payoff out of the narrative. The climax actually proves to be a an oddly impersonal and rushed affair, with glaring omissions that leave us totally disconnected from any kind of feeling – just a sense of what the takeaway may be. It’s not the sort of closure that most viewers will find at all fulfilling.
For their part, the three leading men are all excellent in their roles, as well as in their interactions with each other. Mark Shultz is more barbaric ape than man while in the throes of training, and Channing Tatum gives a performance that is simmering intensity, physical action and few words, as he continues to surprise in both how effective and versatile a performer he is.
Conversely, Mark Ruffalo is all compassion and control as Dave, a calm spirit that is interestingly undercut by his stocky, apish physicality and wrestling agility. Of the three, Ruffalo is best at turning the quiet stillness of Miller’s direction and the deep subtext of the writers’ script into a performance story the audience can interpret. His interactions with Tatum and Carell bring the themes of the movie into clear view, and when he is offscreen, the movie’s focus tends to become a lot murkier. In other words: he’s the top asset in the ensemble.
If you know anything about the real John E. du Pont, then you’ll appreciate Steve Carell’s capture of his robotic detachment. It’s ironically Carell’s comedic timing (developed on things like The Office) that helps him create an awkward offbeat rhythm to du Pont’s character – one that actually feels authentic and organic, rather than contrived. Watching his version of du Pont is interesting in that he is unpredictably strange, and his unorthodox behavior only looks more so when he’s attempting normal social interactions with other men.
Carell also manages to earn the movie’s dramatic climax, as he layers du Pont well enough along the way that his eventual downfall seems carefully telegraphed when given second glance. It’s one of the best performances of Carell’s career – but for those who are unfamiliar with du Pont the man, it could be a bit jarring and strange to see the portrait Carell is painting.
In the end, Foxcatcher is an interesting character study that struggles to convey insightful conclusions about its subjects. Whatever we do get is of awards-worthy cinematic quality, but the movie strangely never seems to be the sum of its parts. The takeaway is three fantastic performances, two of them from unlikely candidates in Tatum and Carell. As award season approaches, Foxcatcher is definitely worth a look; but like many movie memoirs, the complexities of life (in this case, three lives) prove too intricate and deep to wrangle together into a cohesive point within the span of a movie. Still, as a glimpse into a strange history and the sport of wrestling, it’s a pretty fascinating journey.
Foxcatcher is now playing in limited release. It expands to wide release on November 21st.