Silver Screen: Foxcatcher ***1/2
Early in Foxcatcher, brothers and Olympic wrestlers Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) meet in a quiet gym for a morning practice. Mark is sagging, dejected, but the elder Dave pushes forward with the session, rubbing his brother’s shoulders and engaging him in a series of stretches that gradually shift into technique drills and then light grappling. The wrestling drills variously take the form of affectionate embrace, choreographed dance, and primal struggle, with little distinction between the three. It’s a wonderfully demonstrative, understated scene that wordlessly establishes the complexities of the movie’s core relationship.
The best moments of director Bennett Miller’s morose true-crime drama convey complex interactions between men both physically and mentally contorted, all without manipulating the audience or forcing metaphor onto them. These scenes are subtly revelatory, although Miller’s clinical distance and fervent resistance to an agenda leave them strangely decontextualized. Foxcatcher is like a mosaic whose gem-like fragments are more beguiling than the big picture they’re supposed to form.
The sad story of the Schultz brothers is a tabloid tale mostly lost to history’s fickle memory, but it was big news in the mid-1990s as it involved one of America’s richest men. John du Pont (Steve Carell), heir to a fortune made in the chemical-development business, was both disabled and enabled by his extravagant wealth. He hoarded grownup toys— helicopters, guns, antique military equipment— but his most prized possession was a stable of world-class wrestlers who trained in the elite facilities at his Foxcatcher farm, located on the family’s sprawling Pennsylvania estate. Du Pont’s lack of ability as both a competitor and a coach did nothing to deter his dream of underwriting (and thus owning and controlling) the U.S. world-competition team, the feeder system for the Olympics.
Du Pont fantasized about glory at the games in Seoul in 1988. To facilitate his plan, he hired gold medalist Mark, despite Dave being the superior coach and businessman. The desultory Mark had lived in Dave’s shadow his entire life, but at Foxcatcher he’s eclipsed by a larger, darker presence. Carell plays du Pont as a blue-blooded enfant terrible, a sheltered child of privilege unable to make the distinction between honest companionship and paying people to be friends. He likes to play at being one of the boys, but his enormous wealth looms over his every interaction, and when his quick temper flares he’s unafraid to wield it like a cudgel.
Du Pont is beholden to his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave), seen onscreen only briefly but who floats about the movie like a specter. In Foxcatcher’s eeriest parallel, she spends her abundant downtime dourly overseeing the care of her prized thoroughbred horses just as John fastidiously tends to his own stable of hulking beasts. Indulging in what she insists is a “low” sport is both his form of rebellion and fumbling attempt at gaining respect, even if he has to pay competitors to lose to him when he drunkenly indulges in some sparring.
The toxicity of John’s relationship with Mark only intensifies when he is finally able to rent Dave’s loyalty for a hefty fee. The two brothers together on the farm with their tyrannical benefactor is a bleak scenario doomed to end in tragedy, as it did in 1996.
Foxcatcher is a halting, haunting movie that’s more psychologically astute than narratively satisfying. Miller has chosen an interesting subject, but it’s unclear if he has much to say about it. Three movies into his career, Miller has established his signature style as one of chilly remove. Both previous efforts, Capote and Moneyball, were hailed for their strong acting and assured craftsmanship, but what do you really remember about those movies? Each is an intellectual exercise that evokes interest without feeling. Similarly, Foxcatcher is more historical autopsy than immersive storytelling.
That’s not the same as saying Miller has blundered. He seems to know exactly what he’s doing. His style is evident in the stuttering, contemplative speech patterns of all three major characters, which is clearly at the director’s behest. Foxcatcher has more awkward pauses than a troupe of mimes performing a Harold Pinter play in slow motion. At times the silence gives the performances room to breathe, but it also lends the dialogue an unwelcome, alienating affectation.
So too does the overblown makeup job on Carell make him seem less like a real person rather than more like a specific person. Who among us is so familiar with the visage of John du Pont that we would be distracted by Carell? Carell does tremendous work here, but the overzealous makeup distracts with its blatant artifice. Trust him to convey du Pont through speech and mannerism, as do both Tatum and Ruffalo with their characters. The former looks thick and simian, his bright eyes glazed with a flat matte finish. And Ruffalo, who retains the greatest sense of naturalism, has an altogether different physical gait when bulked up; he’s borderline unrecognizable from his usual look of a lean, rakish charmer in movies like You Can Count on Me and the recent Begin Again.
When Foxcatcher’s climactic scene arrives, it’s sudden and shocking. Perhaps that partly evokes the senselessness of the crime, but it also owes to the movie’s own uncertainty. The proof of that is the warped timeline. Onscreen the tragic end to the story appears to have happened weeks or months after the Seoul Olympics, when it fact it came nearly a decade later. What occurred during those eight intermediary years that precipitated the outburst of violence? It’s certainly relevant, but Miller balks here. Raising questions is as important a function of art as providing answers, but Miller’s resistance to theorizing plays more like a dodge than a decision.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.