Directed by: Benett Miller
Written by: E. Max Frye and David Futterman
Starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo
This was a chore. It wasn’t a terrible film, but it was definitely something I felt that I had to sit through or endure rather than enjoy.
Foxcatcher tells the story of Dave and Mark Schultz, real life pro-wrestlers and brothers who trained with John du Pont and the Foxcatcher team for the 1988 Olympics. Mark is enthralled by du Pont’s offer to train him for the upcoming Olympics and immediately moves to Pennsylvania to begin working with the Foxcatcher team. The rest of the story dives into the dynamic between the two brothers and the arguably pathological actions of du Pont.
In one of the opening scenes we see Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) training in their modest local gym. Casual conversation turns to Dave helping Mark to stretch out and eventually the two break into an almost elegantly choreographed fight. I don’t know a ton about wrestling, so it’s possible that this sequence wasn’t too far from a typical training session, but it certainly felt smoother and far less aggressive than I would have expected. It definitely had visual appeal, which is a common occurrence in Foxcatcher; even though most of the film is so bleak it seems like someone forgot to wipe the layer of dust off of the lens before shooting, there are moments when Greig Fraser’s cinematography really shines. Fraser had previously photographed Zero Dark Thirty and that style is apparent in Foxcatcher.
Really, the biggest factor that drew me to Foxcatcher was the buzz surrounding the acting performances. Steve Carrell’s role was one of the first acting performances in talks for Oscar potential when the conversation started in early fall. It turns out that prediction was on mark: Carrell is nominated in the highly competitive Best Actor category for this year’s Academy Awards. John du Pont is a character unlike anything that we’ve ever seen Steve Carell play before. He plays du Pont as a bizarre man with an overwhelming power complex that makes your skin crawl. I was very impressed with Steve Carell in this role, but I didn’t feel that his character was ever fully developed. It felt like there were shades of this man that were missing which were essential to understanding him and this film.
Despite the early buzz around Mark Ruffalo’s performance and his recent Oscar nomination for Best Supporting actor, I was a little underwhelmed. It wasn’t that Ruffalo didn’t pull the role off; arguably, he was the most natural person on screen during this entire film. However, I didn’t see the challenge in this performance. Dave was the well-balanced, sensible person between Mark and du Pont, but he isn’t given much more substance than that. There is one scene in particular where Ruffalo knocks it out of the park: a portion of the film details a film crew coming to the ranch to shoot footage for a documentary on the Foxcatcher team. Dave (Ruffalo) is interviewed on camera and asked his thoughts and feelings on du Pont. He struggles to answer the question and with every second that he pauses, his conflicted feelings on du Pont bleed through. That was very well done.
Finally, I have to briefly remark on Channing Tatum. I had basically written this guy off as a rom-com, buddy-comedy movie actor so I had no idea what to expect with his role in Foxcatcher: he wasn’t GREAT but I do see some serious potential in him. I think with a few more demanding roles under his belt and the right director in the driver’s seat we could see something really impressive from him in the future. Mark is a deeply troubled man who lives a relatively solitary life until du Pont enters the picture. He fails to cope with his own shortcomings, he’s desperately clinging to du Pont’s approval in his personal and professional life. In many ways Mark Schultz was the meatiest character in this story and he was played by the most physically appropriate person for the role, but maybe not the actor with the emotional depth necessary to sell that character.
The people that du Pont surrounds himself with and the behavior he elicits from them is the most revealing thing about his character. du Pont is spinning in this circle of needing approval, demanding a god-like praise and then delivering that approval to the young athletes in his power in an effort to manipulate them into staying with the Foxcatcher team.
I won’t touch upon the ending too much, I don’t want to spoil anything; but it seemed to me that it came out of nowhere. This definitely jarred my focus back to the film when it was wandering a bit but the fact that this particular plot point could have been dropped nearly anywhere in the story speaks volumes to our lack of character development in Foxcatcher.
Final Verdict: You can absolutely miss this movie. The aesthetic and the narrative are unnecessarily bleak. The performances are very good and when the cinematography is good it is spot on. The story did spark enough interest to make me want to spend a little time on Wikipedia learning about du Pont and his ‘quirks’ but other than that I thought it was fairly forgettable.
Awards Prospects: I can’t see this going home with anything. For the most part I felt that nominations were given where they were due, but Bennett Miller’s nomination for Best Director is baffling to me. I’ve enjoyed his work in the past and he certainly knows how to get a great performance out of an actor (Moneyball, Capote…I’m still SO sad that Phillip Seymour Hoffman is gone…), but this movie just did not click.