January 8, 2015 Leave a comment
Tired of living in his older brother’s shadow, and having recently spoken at an elementary school in his brother’s place, Mark Shultz (Channing Tatum) signs with wealthy wrestling enthusiast John du Pont (Steve Carrell) and agrees to represent Team Foxcatcher at the 1987 World Wrestling Championships. Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) is also approached, but is unable to relocate to Pennsylvania, finally giving Mark the opportunity to strike out alone. When du Pont introduces Mark to cocaine, however, the young wrestler becomes dependent on the drug and his performance soon deteriorates. No longer in the spotlight, du Pont re-doubles his efforts to sign Dave — finally incentivising him to uproot his family and move. Betrayed, Mark isolates himself from the rest of the team as they prepare for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
Based on a true story, albeit an unbelievable and to this day inexplicable one, Foxcatcher chronicles life at Foxcatcher Farm in the late eighties and nineties. Director Bennett Miller documents the development — and subsequent decline — of Mark and Paul’s relationship, and attempts to explore the various repurcussions of their rift. For anyone unfamiliar with the story, or even the sport of wrestling, the ending will likely come as a complete surprise. (And that’s after du Pont has recast his prodigy as his mentor and entered competitive wrestling himself, aged 50.) Obviously, it would be unfair to go into detail here, but it is important to say that the film doesn’t end in Seoul. This decidedly isn’t a sports movie, just as Miller’s Moneyball wasn’t, only rather than concentrate on mathematical probability his latest film looks at psychological unpredictability.
That’s not the only story here, however, with the critical acclaim the film has received also highlighting the work that has gone into the three main performances. That said, while it’s true that Miller has pushed his actors such celebration might be premature. Tatum is very convincing as Mark, here portrayed as guileless and gullible yet ultimately genuine; but as credible as his performance is it isn’t exactly compelling to watch. Carell, meanwhile, is playing little more than a caricature — comparable to his work as Gru on Despicable Me. The prosthetics are impressive, as is Carell’s commitment, but it neither constitutes characterisation. Writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman may reference du Pont’s love of birds and his compulsive tendencies, but the closest they come to explaining his disturbed mindset is to give him the industry-standard “mommy issues”. In fact, the most revelatory performance comes not from Tatum, Carell or a balding and bloated Ruffallo but from Sienna Miller as the latter’s wife.
That said, Foxcatcher is intermittently intense, and a number of stand-out scenes go some way to explaining the film’s ubiquity going into awards season. The fights, as they should, each tell a story, but Foxcather is at its most memorable outside of the ring; a late-night intrusion at Mark’s guest house is incredibly uncomfortable to watch, and by virtue of Tatum’s undress hints at a homoerotic subtext that is never fully developed, while the heavily trailed scenes showing du Pont enter his gymnasium gun in hand and later chase his mother’s horses from their stables are each unsettling in their own way. The most impactful, however, follows Mark’s first defeat at the Olympics, after which he attacks himself before binging on room service. It take’s Dave’s intervention, and a night in the gym (watched silently through a window by du Pont), to get back into shape before the next morning’s weigh-in. The brothers’ reconciliation over an exercise bike holds a power that much of the rest of the film unfortunately lacks.
The main problem with Foxcatcher is that it lacks a focal point. Is this the story of John, Dave or Mark? The film doesn’t seem to know, and with none of the above given a complete arc to fully flesh out their characters the narrative is denied any coherent shape. John is largely missing from the first act, Dave from the second and Mark from the third. Even anti-sports movies need to give you someone to champion.