Foxcatcher (2014)

Foxcatcher is a strange and strangely true tale of wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz and their time with sponsor and “coach” John du Pont. Whether you know the shocking ending of the story or not hardly matters, as director Bennett Miller’s sense of pacing and tone heralds a dark and tragic end from the very first frame. This is Drama with a capital D, and there’s never any doubt that the relationship between these three men is hurtling to that inevitable conclusion.

But what makes Foxcatcher work so well is the willingness to find the motivations that drove these people in the years leading up to the horrific event. Even if you have a vague awareness or clear understanding of what will eventually come to pass, you won’t feel like you’re just waiting for it to actually go down onscreen. The stories of each man – especially Channing Tatum’s Mark – are captivating, and they’re beautifully displayed in some truly impressive performances. Tatum and Mark Ruffalo clearly push themselves physically and emotionally to portray the Schultz brothers. Steve Carell, turning in a rare dramatic performance, is unrecognizable as the toothy and manic John du Pont.

The story is very much focused on Mark at first, following his life in the shadow of his older brother and his introduction to du Pont. Du Pont asks Mark to join him at Foxcatcher, a self-sustaining training ground at the du Pont estate where young wrestlers work together to achieve their goals, and Mark eventually agrees. “What does he [du Pont] get out of all of this?”, Dave asks Mark early on in the movie. This question, like much of du Pont’s character, is never nailed down for certain. While the Schultz brothers work for wrestling fame and glory, du Pont’s goals are a little more complicated.

Carell is superb as du Pont, and it has little to do with the prosthetic nose or the mere fact that he’s a comedian and is playing against type – he’s just straight-up great as John du Pont. Still, while the transformation is effective and impressive, it’s Tatum and Ruffalo who manage to truly become their characters. Carell is acting and acting well, but it’s almost as if there are no actors to consider when the wrestlers are on the screen. It’s just the Schultz brothers.

There is a scene that some will recognize from the trailer where Tatum’s Mark violently and purposefully smashes his head into a mirror again and again, glass shattering all over his face. In the trailer and out of context, this could be an act of frustration or insanity or pure anger. In the flow of Foxcatcher, it’s really all of those things – Tatum plays the mute brute startlingly well, and Mark’s inability to articulate his feelings results in a truly awe-inspiring physical performance. This scene, painted in a small handful of long shots from Miller and Co., builds from a quiet frustration in a hotel room to an all-out tantrum to a crescendoing explosion. Tatum’s frequent silence and the overall subdued mood of long stretches of the film make these paroxysms all the more gripping.

Mark Bakshi, Anthony Michael Hall, Vanessa Redgrave, Channing Tatum and Steve Carell at NYFF 52 - October 2014
Mark Bakshi, Anthony Michael Hall, Vanessa Redgrave, Channing Tatum and Steve Carell at NYFF 52 – October 2014

There are a few artistic decisions that seem odd in retrospect. I can’t for the life of me figure out why Vanessa Redgrave, who plays du Pont’s mother, was hardly in the film at all. The mommy issues seem crucial to this depiction of John du Pont, and the role of the matriarch figure is even specifically forecast by Anthony Michael Hall’s character early in the film (something to the effect of “If you do happen to see Mrs. du Pont…give her her privacy…dun dun dun!“). But she only gets one speaking scene and one other appearance. It would be interesting to see if the original script had more Mommy in it, and if the decision to leave her out was perhaps a way to provide more ambiguity to the character of her son.

The real-life climax included a standoff between police and John du Pont which lasted for days, du Pont holed up and armed in his vast mansion. This was changed in favor of a quick arrest and a fairly quick end to the film overall. Again, maybe this was done as a way to preserve the question marks surrounding du Pont and surrounding the climactic actions he takes. But it may have been very interesting to let this ending play for a bit longer, to watch how it effects du Pont and others.

Regardless, Foxcatcher is a hell of a film that continues Bennett Miller’s impeccable streak (which started with Capote and Moneyball). He’s certainly a director to watch, and Foxcatcher will no doubt make a splash upon release in November and in the ensuing awards season.

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