One of the most striking things about Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, which is based on true events concerning two Olympic wrestler brothers and a wealthy heir-turned-coach, is just how brooding and dark it is. An acute sense of foreboding is established during the opening credits and it’s still there by the end of the film, even after we’ve passed its most shocking moment and long after it has pinned the spluttering American Dream to the canvas; clouds hang figuratively over the work – and literally above the grey-green Pennsylvania countryside setting – throughout. Following in the wake of his two earlier works, the excellent Capote and Moneyball, Foxcatcher offers confirmation, were it needed, that Miller is an extremely confident filmmaker; he has displayed an impressive level of maturity once again here and incorporates a strong understanding of visual literacy.
This is a slow, patient piece that ought to appeal to anyone who finds the psychology of fraternal, paternal or maternal relationships of interest, or indeed the huge differences that can be found within America’s class system. The dynamics that exist between the characters are key, with the script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman first concentrating on the bond between working class brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), before later introducing Steve Carell’s wealthy benefactor and mentor John du Pont into the equation. The two wrestlers both won gold medals at the 1984 Olympic Games but by 1987, the year in which Foxcatcher begins on a flat, anti-populist note, they are training in fairly poor conditions and lecturing uninterested schoolkids in order to scratch out a living. Miller’s film charts the period in which they are first courted by du Pont, who wishes to make them the focal points of his vain ‘Team Foxcatcher’ wrestling project, before examining the way in which the various relationships change before and after the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.
Born and raised as one of the privileged few on the remote Foxcatcher estate – in stark contrast to the working class Schultzes – du Pont has a troubled relationship with his mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), with the family’s matriarchy established with the minimum of fuss in a few scenes. Her traditional interest in thoroughbred horses dominates the family’s farm and mansion, and John’s attempts to carve out and / or enhance his own identity have led him to the sport of wrestling; he has built an impressive training facility and living space for athletes, and by offering hefty financial rewards in an otherwise underfunded, marginal sport, he easily persuades the disgruntled Mark Schultz join him in Pennsylvania. Dave, with family in tow, is less keen on joining, but a seemingly-bottomless pool of cash and du Pont’s vaguely-amused refusal to accept ‘no’ for an answer eventually puts paid to the older brother’s resistance.
In their near-silent first scene together – a pre-du Pont warm-up drill in their old gym – Miller establishes the nature of the relationship between the Schultzes as the pair grunt their way through a series of animalistic holds and grappling manoeuvres, the camera proximity even making the viewer feel at times like a third wrestler or referee. Dave is trying to help, offering advice and encouragement, while Mark appears resentful and wound-up like a coiled spring; Mark’s inability to remove himself from Dave’s grip is somewhat representative of the archetypal younger sibling struggling to remove himself from his older brother’s shadow, and it is telling that it takes a surprising head butt at this early stage to force an end to the bout.
The link to animal behaviour is a recurring feature. As well as head butting, both Tatum and Ruffalo adopt ape-like walks and stances during the film, supposedly a result of their years of training and competing. Ruffalo, for example, often drops his head down when his character rests an outstretched arm on the shoulders of others, instantly bringing to mind similar actions in the ape world, while Tatum is filmed walking with his fists low to the ground. In a later scene his younger Schultz brother also resembles a four-legged beast, attentive at the feet of a seated du Pont, as if he were a faithful hunting dog.
Miller also plays around with male body contact throughout, with the brothers occasionally sharing awkward and not-so-awkward hugs that are barely-distinguishable from their sporting moves; indeed it seems at times as if Mark and Dave are only able to communicate with each other by wrestling. This tactile awkwardness is shared by du Pont, whose physical interaction with those around him comes with a distinctly cold and wary air, suggesting a lonely and loveless hands-off upbringing long before the script confirms it. Miller uses every available opportunity to highlight the uneasy contact between du Pont and Mark Schultz in particular, incorporating a series of scenes that contain forced, clumsy interaction: examples include ringside celebrations at the 1987 World Championships, drunken trophy-room horseplay, an uncomfortable on-stage embrace during a speech handover and a camp and amusingly po-faced promotional photoshoot.
At the Foxcatcher estate Mark Schultz gradually adopts the role of appreciative son, with du Pont keen to act out the related part of the benevolent father, despite the fact their bond has been formed, first and foremost, through a financial contract. Mark has his low standing as an invited guest spelled out to him in no uncertain terms by Anthony Michael Hall’s estate manager Jack, and is reminded at almost every turn that his background is vastly different to du Pont’s whenever he is present in the estate’s ‘Big House’; to illustrate this Miller chooses to let the camera rest repeatedly upon the numerous post-Civil War historical portraits of du Pont family members, a sea of faces captured permanently in lofty, sneery poses; there’s even one in the toilet, looking down on Mark as he takes a leak. Little wonder this false father-son relationship, which Miller places on a knife edge at all times for dramatic effect, is unable to withstand the introduction of the confident, more charming older brother Mark is jealous of, and threatened by.
The aim of Team Foxcatcher is to win a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, but Mark gradually loses motivation, starts taking cocaine, and becomes resentful when Dave shows up as a coach. Du Pont has by this point failed in the role himself (almost certainly a trigger with regards to what happens next), Mark Schultz gradually retreats into a shell, and Dave is caught in the middle, balancing his brother’s happiness with his own desire to gain financial security for his family. During this passage of the film Carell’s bizarre heir to the du Pont chemicals fortune gradually disintegrates and the actor’s performance will live long in the memory as a result (and, thankfully, not simply because he sports a large and ridiculous conk throughout). Carell’s skill is in making du Pont threatening while simultaneously appearing to be utterly ridiculous. The joke that he has a big nose and yet wishes to be referred to by the nickname ‘Eagle’ is lost on him but not the audience. In one great scene Jean turns up at the gym and witheringly dismisses John’s attempts to impress her by bullshitting his way through a coaching session. He’s a sham, a fake, and despite commissioning a ludicrous puff-piece of a documentary about his strengths as a coach, he knows it. Yet du Pont, for all his ridiculousness, exudes menace throughout. Carell somehow manages to tread the thin line between ‘penetrating glare’ and ‘blank expression’, ensuring that he creeps out just about every scene in which he is featured, while the occasionally-unhinged behavior he displays around weaponry is both prescient and unnerving. It’s an eye-catching role, requiring a slightly over-the-top performance, and though it ticks plenty of the Academy’s favourite boxes – prosthetics, comic actor in a serious role, etc. – he deserves his acting nomination and eclipses his earlier against-the-grain work in Little Miss Sunshine and The Way, Way Back.
Tatum – an actor I’ve otherwise failed to be impressed by in his serious roles – is surprisingly good, but best of all is Ruffalo’s low-key and more realistic turn as the older Schultz brother. In terms of this story Dave isn’t quite as eye-catching a role as those enjoyed by Tatum and Carell, but Ruffalo keeps the film grounded and gives Foxcatcher a little warmth, ensuring that it doesn’t get too bleak and morose.
Miller, in my always-unqualified opinion, does a great job. This isn’t really a film about the sport of wrestling – the nearest thing we see to the brothers’ 1984 triumph is a photograph of them happily holding their freshly-engraved gold medals aloft – in the same way that Moneyball was about the business of baseball as opposed to the game itself (although many would argue there’s less and less distinction between the two as time goes by). It’s an intelligently-made work that gets to grips with its characters early on, the screenplay developing their relationships in an intriguing manner, and at times it is also visually impressive, particularly with regards to its numerous establishing shots of misty Pennsylvania vistas. The director establishes a bleak tone early on, sticks with it for more than two hours, and it’s difficult to keep track of the number of utterly uncomfortable on-screen conversations you’ve sat through by the end. In that sense I can see why Foxcatcher would not appeal to everyone – it is at times a little too slow, too, though not overlong – but wisely I don’t think anyone has gone into the project with dreams of packed cinemas and enthusiastic standing ovations. It’s a confident, measured work, with a trio of fine acting performances, and I especially liked its incessant, troubling moodiness.
Directed by: Bennett Miller
Written by: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Sienna Miller
Running Time: 134 minutes