It’s been a giant pain in the ass for me to figure out when to post my review of Bennett Miller’s Cannes-screened Foxcatcher. Apparently it was released earlier in November, but I saw little evidence of a mass populace catching it. It got a “blink-or-you’ll-miss-it” release in Miami briefly before disappearing and I still think it is intending to come back. But just now reddit has started an Official Discussion for the movie and I will consider that enough of a sign that now is the time to finally talk about a movie I got to smugly say for a while “I saw before you even got a chance” – Foxcatcher.
So, despite the mess of a release, it is very safe to say Foxcatcher itself really is not a mess. Miller’s influence on the film is very obviously contained and controlled, trophy and memorabilia like. It’s fine-polished. It’s well-tuned. It’s a little bit too well-tuned to a most artificial sense. It feels like a taxidermy of a drama, which on one hand makes for an intense amount of atmosphere that does work in the film’s favor, but also doesn’t make for a compelling film in moments where nothing happens. And there’s actually a lot of moments where nothing happens. The movie in the middle of it becomes a sort of stalemate in momentum for the real-life relationship of the Schultz Brothers and John Du Pont.
But I actually want to get to the good stuff, the stuff that I actually really loved about the movie and think showed how much potential it came to being a masterpiece, before I should state what depresses me about how much I really wanted to like the rest of the movie.
The movie tells the true life tale of Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), both wrestlers came back together from the 1984 Olympics wearing Gold Medals around their necks and obscurity around their beings. Schultz in particular holds a resentment at his existence in the shadow of his brother and so when he was unexpectedly approached in his wallowing by John du Pont (Steve Carell), an eccentric and mysterious millionaire who is willing to use his vast fortunes to fund the next 1988 USA Olympic Wrestling, hosting them in his own gym in Foxcatcher Farms.
What follows becomes a psychological torture to all the participants involved as tensions become heightened. Du Pont initially comes off as an exceedingly patriotic man trying to represent his country with a high enthusiasm for the sport, but his true colors become more and more apparent – mother issues, a need for power, sinister overreactions for the tiniest slight.
Something that does not become apparent in the film is symptoms of du Pont’s schizophrenia. I don’t know if that was deliberate on the part of writer E. Max Frye and Miller, but it’s not that there is little in the film to suggest that mental illness on the part of du Pont played a hand at the fate of the conflict. It’s that there is nothing in the film to suggest that. Everything about John du Pont as portrayed in this movie is just a very angry, very insecure, very vengeful man who has no understanding or care for the people below him.
I suppose Frye and Miller felt that the idea of showing the villain as mentally disturbed would have undercut the themes of rich-over-poor and the cynicism inherent in nationalism, but I really don’t see how that would entirely do so. In any case, it is a dramatization taking its liberties with what happened.
All of these extremely dark overthrows between du Pont and the Schultzes to the environment lead up to a finale that you almost certainly saw coming (I can not imagine anyone watching the movie to the end and not realizing what will be the final punctuation to the matter) and yet you will still be wishing it had gone differently. That is the good part.
The fact that Channing Tatum – who seriously honestly, guys, I mean this, needs to be given his dues as an actor by now – and Mark Ruffalo could heavy lift the emotion of the film really makes the scenario of the movie a lot more imperative, even in the little things – because Miller’s brown and grey dusty stained-painting dressing to the film alongside his cinematographer Grieg Fraser are snuffing out any possible emotional attachment the film could give. Tatum, who struggles through just a tiny bit of prosthetic work on his face, gives an almost two-dimensionally written character (a mark against Frye when Mark is undeniably the protagonist of this whole ordeal) an attitude of resentment and self-loathing with the little details of his posture, his tone of voice to even the people he loves, and his melancholy look pasted forever on his face. Du Pont smacks him on the face and calls Mark an ungrateful ape and we believe that Mark believes it rather than being the power figure his body makes him capable of being. Tatum carries almost the entire film with a bit of help from Ruffalo, who as Dave, gives a more lived-in presence in the film. We don’t see as much of Dave as we do Mark and du Pont, but the interactions between the two brothers – which are almost constantly powered by Tatum’s attitude all throughout those scenes – are the most genuine moments in the film, whether adding to the conflict or just the brothers trying as best as they can to stay brothers.
Carell, on the other hand, is not as impressive. He gives tremendous effort in the role of John du Pont and almost clearly has done his research. He doesn’t outright nullify the moments of the film and steps on the dramatic beats of the film when necessary, but he’s also the most controlled of the three central performances. And seeing that he has made all these little eccentricities of himself is like looking at a puppet’s strings and trying to convince yourself that you’re not still looking at a puppet. It probably works for some people. It just doesn’t for me. Acting is a part of film that is just too apparent, too obvious to see when it’s obviously made up.
Miller’s film however is technically sound – I have no outright qualms with it winning Best Director at Cannes – and it gets away with that from the little but maybe unfair fact that we just don’t see the director, the cinematographer, etc. He makes sure that the movie comes off as stuffy, tedious, and asphyxiating. It’s a very deathly film. It’s not fun. I think what got me most was all the stuffy, asphyxiating, tedious factors you mentioned, they just added the atmosphere to what felt like it should have been a lively boost of nationalistic morale. Maybe if we had gotten more liveliness throughout the film (there were moments in the theater when people laughed and probably forced it because how sobering most of the film is), there would be enhanced irony in the film itself, but I still loved that every little bit of pep had to be fucking shut down simply by how the movie was presented, so that you knew something bad was going to happen.
Finally, Frye’s script doesn’t carry itself the way Tatum and Miller do for the film. Partly because its narrative gets to an absolute standstill halfway through the movie and stops trying to wiggle itself out of that hole around the final act, which is the longest-feeling part of the movie. But also largely because it happens to be holding all of the themes it tries to dedicate itself to at surface-level only. It says “Yes, there is an irony in nationalism”, “Yes, there is jealousy even at wealth”, “Yes, there is little valor and honor in some things” and doesn’t go deeper than that. Just displays these themes and moves on. The only insight it dedicates itself too is shaping the character of du Pont with all of his shortcomings as a greedy, vain, controlling, impersonable being and that doesn’t really help when he holds off on the mental illness (which is essentially telling half of the story) and Carell’s performance is completely artificial and fake.
So, there’s Foxcatcher on a balancing beam. I would be unsurprised at its Oscar potential, but there’s just as much wrong with it as right and while I do in the end really like the movie, despite identifying its faults (though, like most movies, I’m sure the faults will eventually make me more disgruntled), there are those things within Foxcatcher that imply a better movie could have been made out of this. That living in Capote’s shadow is the only thing it can do right now and it’s unlikely to wrestle itself out of that.