Carell, Ruffalo and Tatum are a stellar triumvirate in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher – an unsettling and bone-chillingly creepy true story.
Father, Son and the Ghost by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Bennett Miller’s fourth feature film is the tragic story of three very different men; one who struggles in the shadow of his brother and another who himself lives in the shadows of a family fortune. In development for over 8 years, Miller was fascinated with the story of John du Pont and the Schultz brothers long before he inherited the troubled Moneyball from Steven Soderbergh. Notoriously private, Miller is patient and meticulous in the selection of his projects. He’s comfortable in the shadows, ducking in and out of obscurity from time to time to make and eventually promote a film – a modus operandi that so far has been supremely successful. Having received a combined 11 Oscar nominations for Capote and Moneyball, Foxcatcher is guaranteed to garner a similar raft of nominations come January 15th, and Miller’s unsettling, chilling and brilliant tale of obsession deserves every single one.
Following gold medals in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, wrestlers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) live very different lives. Dave is a celebrated Olympian involved with USA Wrestling as a respected athlete and coach, and despite his notable achievements, Mark is largely forgotten. When philanthropist and wrestling enthusiast John du Pont (Steve Carell) invites Mark to his lavish estate in Pennsylvania, du Pont invites him to join and coach his private wrestling team entitled ‘Team Foxcatcher’, as well as preparing for the next World Championships. Initially, the relationship is a success with Mark winning gold at the 1987 World Wrestling Championships, but over time, du Pont’s unnatural and overbearing influence causes Mark to unravel. When Dave is finally convinced to join Team Foxcatcher, with his self-esteem and fitness in tatters, Mark withdraws further from his brother and the unstable and dangerous du Pont.
There’s a moment (one of many) in Foxcatcher where Steve Carell’s John du Pont manifests in shot like an apparition, his face unrecognisable through prosthetics and muted lighting, that feels distinctly supernatural. Carell’s wind-up doll-like speech is matched by an unnervingly creepy physical performance – his character inhabits the silence and shadows like a primordial creature. His performance is amplified by the exquisite framing of each of Miller’s shots, with du Pont often hovering in the background of shots just slightly out of focus. Similar to his magnificent work on Zero Dark Thirty, Greig Fraser’s cinematography is integral in maintaining the mood of the film – lending a mystical element to the timeless atmosphere that hangs in the mists of the du Pont estate. Once the story moves from the first act in Wisconsin, the long, lingering exterior shots create a sense of isolation and disconnection from the real world, where the passage of time is confused, evoking the unnatural cult-like isolation of the Team Foxcatcher environs.
While the primary purpose of Miller’s film is to dutifully tell a true story, at its heart, Foxcatcher is a subtle and understated examination of wealth, obsession and isolation. Mark Schultz and du Pont are unified in their unfortunate positions as forgotten men – men who are eclipsed by the success of their seniors. Both men are fuelled by a bubbling anger that often manifests in moments of quiet ferocity, in starkly different ways. Tatum expertly channels the tormented brooding beast of a wrestler – it’s almost painful to watch at times, such is the power of Tatum’s excellent performance. The opening scene establishes the lacuna that Mark finds himself in despite his success as an Olympian when he fills in for brother Dave at a High School presentation. Furthermore, Mark also symbolises du Pont’s golden opportunity to show that he can raise his own thoroughbred on Foxcatcher farm, the Olympian reduced to a plaything for the millionaire, something that he can finally command control over and forge a relationship with.
Carell on the other hand keeps du Pont at a distance to us. When not directly involved, he is hovering around the background, his omnipresence creepy and affecting. Carell’s plaudits for the role are well deserved; he nails the intricate, odd little tendencies of the late du Pont, highlighting a man so odd he never had the chance to be remotely normal. The idleness of a wealthy upbringing has neutered his ability to engage in social situations, only earning attention through the power derived from his wealth. His over-dependency on the validation of “Mother” Jean (played to great effect by Vanessa Redgrave) is Norman Bates-esque, and it’s through this relationship that John feels most marginalised. Expressing her deep dissatisfaction with John’s interest in wrestling – which she deems a “low” sport – Jean clearly has no place for John in the du Pont family history. And a telling encounter with Jean confirms this with a reluctant concession for John to house his wrestling accolades in the equestrian dominated trophy room, “but not in the Rosemont case”.
While it’s Carell and Tatum’s performances generating the lion’s share of Oscar buzz – and deservedly so – Mark Ruffalo’s Dave Schultz deserves special mention for capping off this stellar triumvirate. His naturalistic turn as the warm, loving and paternal older brother Dave, is one of the films greatest achievements. He brings a welcome humanity to a film that is often starved to the bone of it – dragging the audience closer to the proceedings, without which Foxcatcher would be an even colder and infinitely less engaging experience. The only notable misstep with the film is in the edit – owing to an undoubtedly heavy edit, there are parts of the film that feel rough and at odds with the flow of the narrative. The most noticeable of these is Mark’s descent into overweight, bleach-blond layabout – we know how he gets here, but it feels rushed and uneven.
There are a multitude of metaphors bubbling under the surface of Foxcatcher, examining the idleness of wealth, the suffocating weight of familial success and an unshakeable feeling that reminds us that even the most seemingly benign evil is evil all the same. Miller’s exhaustive research through the du Pont and Schultz back-catalogues is incisively brought to the fore by writers Frye and Futterman’s astute script. For the third time in four films, director Bennett Miller has expertly crafted a film that will endure through the annals of cinema. This tumbleweed of Tinseltown, and auteur of undeniable talents, has brought us his very own Babadook in the form of Carell’s hauntingly spectral performance as John du Pont, and you won’t feel quite the same after it.
Foxcatcher is released on 9th January 2014