Based on a true story and set largely in the late eighties, Foxcatcher has been an awards season contender since Bennett Miller took the best director award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. However the film may be too austere and creepy for the Academy’s tastes.
Brothers Mark and David Shultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) had both won gold medals for wrestling in the 1984 Olympics but the introverted Mark lives in the shadow of his gregarious, less socially awkward older brother. Despite athletic success, Mark Shultz is scraping a meagre existence collecting twenty dollar cheques for speaking engagements in high schools, often as a replacement for the more popular David who has a coaching career and a family.
The situation changes with a call from the assistant of John du Pont. The heir to the chemical dynasty, du Pont (Steve Carell) describes himself as a noted ‘ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist’. He is also unfeasibly wealthy and a wrestling enthusiast. Du Pont wants to make a name for himself as a coach and mentor, and sees the Shultz brothers as the key to his dream of founding ‘Team Foxcatcher’ and becoming a player in the sport.
While this sounds like the set up for an inspirational sports movie, Foxcatcher is anything but. Although based on well documented events this is a film best seen with minimum foreknowledge. Suffused with a sense of awful creeping dread the film exerts an icy grip as it tells an increasingly sordid and disturbing story.
Although top billed (and very likely to win the best actor Oscar) Carell’s entrance is delayed. We hear about him from various servants and underlings, and the naive Mark is usher into a variety of waiting rooms for his initial audience like Jonathan Harker arriving at Castle Dracula for the first time. du Pont is in many ways a monster, nearly unrecognisable with a fake nose and weirdly small teeth, Carell looks like a nightmarish melange of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Odo and Max Shreck in Nosferatu. Speaking in strange clipped tones, Carell’s du Pont is instantly unsettling, his mask-like face and cold eyes make him inscrutable creating a growing sense of unease over his motivations and desires.
Tatum is also physically transformed, with a heavy brow and nose, and a simian underbite. Combined with the character’s awkwardness and passive aggression this creates an initial impression of brutish low intelligence. As the film progresses it becomes clearer that Mark Schultz is a man who is struggling against some powerful inner demons relating to his broken family background. These make him vulnerable to du Pont’s influence.
It is embarrassing to recall how recently I still considered Tatum to be a lunk-headed slice of Hollywood beefcake fit only for GI Joe movies, while the actor has steadily been growing his reputation with strong work in films as diverse as Magic Mike (which he developed), Side Effects, and the two Jump Street movies, Foxcatcher is the performance that categorically proves his acting chops. Visceral, powerful, but also vulnerable.
The third parter in a powerful triumvirate of acting excellence is Ruffalo. Carell and Tatum have firecracker parts but Ruffalo’s may have the greatest challenge. David Schultz, seems to be an uncomplicated and grounded ‘nice guy’ and he is off-screen for much of the middle section of the film. Ruffalo succeeds in overcoming this significant obstacle and making his character a compelling presence.
An early scene in which Mark Schultz’ simmering resentment and passive aggression emerges during a sparring session with his brother demonstrates Ruffalo’s tremendous virtues as an actor. With minimal dialogue the complexity of the sibling relationship is deftly explored.
Working from a superb script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, full of halting, naturalistic dialogue rather than grandstanding speeches, director Miller takes his time to establish a very distinctive and chilly mood. Much of the action takes place on and around the lavish du Pont estate and mansion and the Pennsylvania locations seem to be in perpetual winter. This ice age is carried through to the frigid relationships between characters. Du Pont is a man whose families immense wealth and status has isolated, he doesn’t have friends, he has staff, and his relationships are permanently distorted by this.
Following his first meeting with du Pont Mark Shultz packs his bags and drives to the estate full of piss and vinegar. He believes he is assured of a lucrative new position, and accepted as colleague by his wannabe mentor. His second visit is less welcoming, leading to a horrible scene in which he is suddenly subjected to a personally intrusive and borderline inappropriate interview by the du Pont family’s officious lawyer.
Du Pont himself has a distant relationship with his cold and disapproving mother (an imperious Vanessa Redgrave). Shultz is advised to keep his distance and the audience is likewise only permitted to see her in the distance with the horses she seems to prize over her own son. The suspicion created by Schultz’ aggressive second interview is that ‘Team Foxcatcher’ is a rich man’s plaything, a whim based on a flimsy premise. This suspicion is subtly exploited by du Pont’s mother in an apparently inconsequential exchange about a childhood train set.
Du Pont’s ‘mommy issues’ are Norman Bates sized, even in his fifties he is still pathetically eager to try and win her approval with the second-hand glow of Mark Shultz’ sporting achievements, but as she tells him, she considers wrestling a ‘low’ sport, ‘and I do not like to see you being low’. The way Redgrave enunciates the world ‘low’, stretching out the syllable, sounds like an oil slick coating a beach covered in broken glass.
It is the accumulation of small seemingly minor details like this made me feel like my core body temperature was steadily dropping during the 134 minutes running time.
This is a film that I found required some time to percolate. It is both intimate and vast in its scale. What could have been a simple chamber piece between three principal players is something far more expansive. The characters are often dwarfed in cast empty landscapes or the cavernous du Pont mansion (chintz wallpaper has rarely instilled so much unease). The oppressive dread and certainty that something horrible was about to happen, a feeling that grips from the pictures very early scenes, made the viewing experience draining. I cannot say I found this an entertaining film.
I felt that while the film created a very believable sibling relationship between Mark and David Shultz, du Pont’s motivations remained obscure throughout. As I exited the screening this seemed to be a problem, but as it has lingered fermenting in my brain the Foxcatcher became less a flawed character study unable to pierce the skin of its subject, and became something grander and more troubling. The hollow nature of du Pont seemed more and more to be the point. Not unlike American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, he is a vessel, an empty shell filed with poison.
Foxcatcher is both a riposte to claims that America has no social class system, and a damning indictment of its effects. Du Pont expresses his desire for friendship but he is unable to see anyone as anything more than a commodity to be bought and traded. The lure of his power and wealth is such that even the most apparently incorruptible are able to rationalise its influence.
I haven’t been as subtly disturbed by a film since Under The Skin. I cannot say that I like Foxcatcher, but this is not a film that is interested in being liked.