Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum
Running time: 134 minutes
Rating: ***1/2 (three-and-a-half stars)
Four years after his Oscar-nominated Moneyball (2011), and nearly 10 years after his equally acclaimed Capote (2005), director Bennett Miller is back with a new film, Foxcatcher. Miller has already won the Best Director prize for this true crime drama at Cannes and is in the running for a trophy at the upcoming Academy Awards as well. Hollywood pundits have made much of the fact that this is the first time since 2008 that a film has received the Best Director nod, but not a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. Watching the film, however, and contrasting it with the real life incidents on which it is based, gives an indication into why that might be.
The story begins with American Olympic gold medal winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) delivering a speech to schoolchildren on the qualities needed to reach the highest levels of athletic achievement — he is paid a measly $20 for his efforts, and there is also some confusion over which Schultz he is (Mark’s older brother, David Schultz is also an Olympian gold winning wrestler and the more famous of the two siblings). The scene effectively conveys issues Mark is grappling with: The ennui of his life, its basic poverty despite his professional achievements; and being overshadowed by his beloved older brother.
Soon, a golden opportunity comes calling — a mysterious phone call requesting that Mark present himself at the estate of multi-millionaire John DuPont (Steve Carell). Mark meets the rather strange Mr DuPont, who wants to set up a first class training center for wrestlers. The wrestlers will compete under the banner of “Team Foxcatcher” (Foxcatcher being the name of the award-winning racing horse stable that the DuPont family has maintained). DuPont says he is a patriot, he wants to nurture talent that will in turn bring glory to their nation — the sentiments feed into Mark’s sense of disappointment, the feeling that he hasn’t been given his due.
A few speed-bumps aside — DuPont wants Mark to convince David (played by Mark Ruffalo) to join Team Foxcatcher, Dave refuses because he doesn’t want to uproot his family; then there is also the decided eccentricities of his benefactor that Mark must overlook — the two men develop an unlikely rapport. They’ve both led essentially lonely lives, DuPont with a domineering mother who once paid their chauffeur’s son to act as John’s friend; Mark as a child shuttling between divorced parents, with only Dave watching out for him. Their burgeoning friendship is mirrored in Mark’s continuing success on the wrestling circuit, including a World Championship win.
In other areas, however, things are unravelling. DuPont first undermines Mark’s relationship with Dave; then, when he feels Mark is gaining too much control over Team Foxcatcher, humiliates him in front of all the other wrestlers. To cap the humiliation, he prevails on Dave to join the team as their leader, effectively “demoting” Mark.
The scene is set up for an explosive confrontation, and it does come, especially after Mark’s performance on the wrestling mats begins a steady descent. While he repairs his relationship with Dave, he makes clear that working with DuPont is no longer an option. After a soul-crushing defeat in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he leaves Foxcatcher for good, although Dave decides to stay on — with unforeseen consequences.
The bleak atmosphere that prevails through the film — there is an utter stillness in most of the shots (the background score has been kept to a minimum), the gloomy countryside that corresponds with the mindset of the characters, even the grey tone that seems to hang over every scene — builds up to its dramatic end. And despite the generally low key nature of the proceedings — there is no great explosion of drama and hysterics, but more of a steady unraveling — there isn’t a time that you will be less than engaged in the proceedings on screen.
It helps that there are some powerful performances here: Steve Carell moves away from the comic roles he has been most successful with, and becomes John DuPont, truly inhabiting his mannerisms and physicality. Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz is the most likeable (and the least-developed?) character in the film — he brings the wrestler’s gift for putting people at ease to life. Carell and Ruffalo have both earned Oscar nominations for their efforts. Channing Tatum’s performance elicits somewhat mixed feelings: He has clearly tried hard to get into the role of the taciturn Mark Schultz, and presents his conflicted state of mind adequately in certain scenes. In others however, he makes Mark Schultz seem wooden, slow to comprehend and socially awkward — a portrayal that’s been criticised for being unlike the real Mark. In fact, the real Mark Schultz made his displeasure rather evident over social media, before conceding that on the whole, the film is “good”.
Foxcatcher has also been criticized for other alleged inaccuracies — for instance, it spends a lot of time focusing on the Mark-DuPont relationship, when real life events suggest that it was the Dave-John DuPont relationship that was the closer one (Dave stayed on at Foxcatcher for seven years after Mark left, a fact that does not come through in the film). The focus is understandable considering that it is from Mark’s book Foxcatcher that the film has been adapted. But the real life DuPont’s mental illness (paranoia, delusions, need for attention, violent outbursts) isn’t fully brought out in the film. The film provides little explanation for his actions and behaviour, content to focus briefly on his troubled relationship with a disapproving mother. At the end therefore, the feeling is of a jigsaw puzzle put together, with crucial pieces missing. There is no “conclusion” in the typical sense to be found here — much like in life, one can argue.
Foxcatcher illuminates three complex men (to varying degrees) and their relationships. It highlights the disservice we as a society do to our sportspersons (a point that will resonate with audiences here). And it depicts just how much we’re willing to overlook when great wealth and power are brought to bear on a situation.
It also provides perhaps a small but key observation into an elusive character the American press has tried repeatedly to figure out: It lies in one scene, when after writing out a checque for $10,000 Carell’s DuPont cuts short Mark’s effusive expressions of gratitude by saying he needn’t address him as Mr DuPont anymore. As Mark waits expectantly, DuPont says, “My friends call me the Golden Eagle” and then, as he sees the incredulity flash across Mark’s face, he amends quickly, “But you can call me John, or coach”.