Director: Bennett Miller
Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller
Release Date: 9th January 2015
There hasn’t been a drama film “based on a true story” in recent years that will have audience members powering up their phones in the credits as quickly as Foxcatcher, although most will be logging on to John DuPont’s Wikipedia page rather than checking unread texts. It is also likely that “movie picnickers” will be leaving cinemas with much of their food intact, as the irritating rustle of the popcorn bag is embarrassingly amplified by the compellingly quiet tone that Bennet Miller employs throughout this dark, real-life drama.
The story opens on Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic wrestler and gold medallist struggling to make ends meet in mid-1980s America, where athletes are woefully under-supported in the long spells of training between competitions. Mark is withdrawn, brooding and almost self loathing, unlike his training partner and older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic champion and the anchor of positivity and normality in a film of darker, more mysterious characters. The brothers show their deep bond in an early training session, grappling and gripping in a fascinating scene that seems primal and ape-like, communicating fully but with only Dave speaking.
A prominent theme throughout Foxcatcher is how little is shared with the viewer through the often sparse dialogue of Eric Fyre and Dan Futterman’s minimalistic script. Ranging from subtle reading between the lines through to dramatic physical actions, much of the plot and character development is driven through the film’s subtext; and when this is paired with the near-silent and eerily still nature of many scenes, an atmosphere of intrigue is created that is totally enthralling.
This atmosphere is truly cemented into the film when Mark is invited to meet with philanthropic wrestling enthusiast John du Pont (Steve Carrell) at his grand Foxcatcher Farm estate, where du Pont would like to financially support and facilitate the training of Mark in the build-up to the ’87 World Championships and the ’88 Olympic Games. Dave’s presence is also requested at the programme, though his wary suspicions and unwillingness to uproot his family leave Mark moving to Pennsylvania alone.
From the moment that John du Pont appears on screen, Carell’s spellbinding performance creates a palpable sense of uneasy discomfort. Nominated for a Golden Globe and certain to be featured at the 2015 Academy Awards, Carell’s full embodiment of John du Pont received on-set acclaim from many past attendees of the actual Foxcatcher Wrestling programme. His shuffling, hunched gait and unsettling, stalled vocal delivery is as equally impressive as the incredible prosthetic work used to remodel his face. While Carell arguably steals the show, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo both hold their own to say the least. Tatum’s portrayal of the disillusioned young Olympian, a role that he has described as “the hardest acting challenge I’ve had to date”, is remarkable. On the other end of the spectrum, Ruffalo (difficult to recognise behind large frame glasses and full beard) perfectly encapsulates the protective, paternal love of an older brother within a broken family dynamic, and the underlying sense of warmth in his on-screen interactions with Tatum are magnificent.
Alongside cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly) and Academy nominated producer Megan Ellison (Zero Dark Thirty, Her, American Hustle), Bennett Miller captures the beauty of the American North-East with pristine detail. Scenes of misty spring-time forests and snow covered winter fields heighten the strange sense of abnormality that hangs over Foxcatcher Farm. “The Big House is off-limits” the du Pont family attorney tells Mark upon arrival at the estate, amongst other stipulations that seem reminiscent of horror classics like The Shining. In welcome contrast, the bouts of Greco-Roman wrestling depicted in the movie are punchy, tightly shot and thankfully require no prior knowledge of the sport’s intricacies.
While Foxcatcher is captivating throughout, it’s pacing in the climatic final scenes seems rushed when compared to the slow build of the first and second acts, and this will certainly fuel the desire to instantly Google “Foxcatcher Wrestling” as soon as possible after viewing. In addition to slightly uneven pacing, viewers may also be disappointed not to have seen more of John du Pont’s controlling mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), as her on-screen appearances interestingly hint at the source of her son’s enigmatic behaviour. While this may be best left to the interpretation of the audience, you cannot help but want more of Redgrave’s excellent performance as the narcissistic, judgemental matriarch. The character of Dave’s wife, Nancy Schultz (Sienna Miller), also feels potentially under-utilised. However with Foxcatcher clocking in at over two hours in length, Bennett Miller’s decision to focus on the development of the main trio of characters may be entirely justified in order to avoid unnecessary drag in an already gently paced film.
However despite these shortfalls, Bennett Miller has outdone himself with Foxcatcher – a mighty achievement of subtle character study and sublime cinematography. A riveting and stunning drama, laced with tragedy and performed impeccably. If he wasn’t facing such stiff competition, you’d be giving an Oscar to Carell already.
* * * *
4 / 5 stars
Written by James Excell