Editor's note: Because "Foxcatcher" is based on a real murder case with details that are public record, this review discusses those events in detail.
"Foxcatcher" is a heartfelt, intelligent, deadly serious drama based on a real murder case in which a wealthy patron hired two wrestler brothers, tried to seduce and control one of them, and ended up murdering the other. Every frame of it is sincere. As cowritten by E. Max Frye ("Something Wild") and Dan Futterman ("Capote") and directed by Bennett Miller ("Capote," "Moneyball"), it's also a throwback to a '70s style of commercial filmmaking. Much of it unfolds in long takes, in medium or long distance shots that draw attention to the environment around the characters, and there is minimal dramatic assistance (or intrusion) by music. Parts of it evoke films by the late Alan J. Pakula ("All the President's Men," "The Parallax View," "Comes a Horseman"), a master of understatement.
And yet in the end "Foxcatcher" proves impossible to embrace because of fundamental miscalculations in performance, direction and makeup, along with a certain clumsiness in the way that it tries to make some kind of grand statement about American values, or the lack thereof. If I had to make a list of movies I'm saddest about not having liked, this would rank near the top.
Its heart is a story of brotherly love and rivalry that turns sour, sordid, and ultimately tragic. Olympic wrestlers Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) have a very deep bond, which we later discover was rooted in shared childhood trauma. They didn't just grow up together, they raised each other, with Dave serving as a surrogate father to Mark. When the story begins, Mark is already withering in his brother's shadow. Both won Olympic wrestling medals, but Dave is the more likable and functional of the two. He's made a career as a coach and settled down to raise a family. Mark is single, seemingly has no friends and no sex drive, and spends his free time in monklike solitude, eating Ramen noodles in his bachelor pad. The way Channing Tatum plays him (and in some cases regrettably overplays him) he's a cartoon caveman with a jutted-out chin, trundling around in sweats.
Then billionaire John Eleuthère du Pont (Steve Carell) calls asking Mark to come out to Foxcatcher, his 800-acre Pennsylvania horse farm, and help him create a world-class training facility that'll prepare the U.S. Olympic team for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Mark hops into a helicopter and quickly succumbs to the promise of lavish living quarters and a steady check. (In one of the film's many agonizingly true observations of how the rich exploit class-based ignorance, John asks Mark to name his price, Mark names an amount that John could probably fish from couch cushions, and John says yes as if bestowing a great favor.)
Two chilling facts become clear. One is that John is mainly interested in Mark as a conduit to his brother, who's better suited to the coaching position and the public duties that come with it. The other is that John is a repressed homosexual who became obsessed with wrestling partly to differentiate himself from his mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), a socialite and horse breeder; and that, even though John gives off not the faintest hit of sexual desire, he wants to possess and dominate Mark, or at the very least keep him at Foxcatcher, because he cannot stomach rejection.
John's aversion to rejection might be the the key to what the film is doing, or trying to do, and all its observations in this regard are insightful. Every person hates hearing the word "no," but rich men tend to treat this ordinary experience as a personal affront, because their lives are built upon being catered to, obeyed, and humored, even when their requests are unreasonable or ridiculous. (This is why John's attraction to Mark makes real-world sense, if not always Movie Sense: when Mark resists him, professionally or personally, it's a knife in the heart of his identity, because there's nothing attractive about him except his wealth, and as the Beatles said, money can't buy you love.)
Mark is not, to put it mildly, the sharpest knife in the drawer, and he finds his ashy, clumsy, prematurely doddering patron as repulsive as we do; but he's also carrying around immense psychic weight thanks to his childhood. He seems to view John as, simultaneously, a father figure, an alternate older brother, a boss, and a friend, not to mention a person who has put him at the center of his life after many years in which Mark felt neglected and alone. John is carrying his own set of burdens, which he never spells out to Mark, his protege, employee, surrogate son, and eventually, lover; but we gather that Mark understands them anyway, on some level, thanks mainly to Tatum's naturally empathetic energy. He plays Mark as a closed-off yet extraordinarily sensitive man. Just because Mark can't articulate his feelings doesn't mean he has no feelings, and there are moments when he seems to look at his boss with pity and tenderness as well as resentment and revulsion.
The film's studied funereal tone (overcast skies, fall colors, mournful solo piano music) tips you to where this tale will eventually end up: in a doom spiral, climaxing in murder, that could have been titled "An American Meathead Tragedy." John du Pont eventually did succeed in luring Dave Schultz out to Foxcatcher to take over coaching the team, after ruining Mark with unhealthy food, cocaine, alcohol, psychological terrorism, and sexual exploitation, thus guaranteeing that he would fail at a job he wasn't suited to anyway. Years after Mark got fed up and left, John shot Dave dead in a driveway on the grounds of Foxcatcher, outside of the small cottage that the wrestling coach shared with his wife (Sienna Miller, who's charming despite having been given little to do). The brothers' patron died in prison in 2010. Mark eventually remade himself as a cage fighter, a sport that's depicted earlier in the film as a degrading spectacle compared to the Greco-Roman classicism of the Schultz brothers' great love. Such sadness, such waste.
Dave's death is genuinely piercing, not just because it's presented in such a mundane way (everyone at the murder scene seems to be having a hard time believing that this is actually happening), but because, as written by Frye and Futterman and performed by Ruffalo, the character seems like that rarity of movie rarities, a good man who's also fun and exciting to watch. In one of the movie's most revelatory scenes, Dave is asked to sit for an interview with a filmmaker creating a laudatory video about John's stewardship of the team. He's asked to state that his emotionally cold and athletically inept boss is a great leader and sportsman. Dave hesitates and stammers, turning the request over in his mind, trying to find words that will please his patron without betraying his principles. Ruffalo's exquisitely modulated reactions—captured, like so many "Foxcatcher" moments, in long, uncut, squirm-inducing closeups—make this scene a short movie in itself, about how hard it is to reconcile integrity with the need to earn a living.
What, though, are we supposed to make of this—any of it? That's the question you might take away from "Foxcatcher," and I'm sorry to say that the film doesn't give much in the way of an answer, beyond, "Here is an incredibly sad story based on real events." This may sound strange, given how quiet and visually restrained "Foxcatcher" is, but it has a habit of overdoing and overselling Big Ideas that aren't so big, and that in any case are already being explored through the main characters.
Chief among these is that the John-Mark dyad is some kind of metaphor for American capitalism's exploitation of labor; Miller and his screenwriters shoehorn this in via talk of American history and shots of historical monuments and battlefields, and the U.S. capitol, and verdant fields, and via patriotic standards and American folk music, including "America the Beautiful" and "This Land is Your Land." I am not convinced that any of this iconographic mucking about was advisable or even necessary, because the low-key, realistic tone doesn't go well with overt symbolism, and because John and Mark's relationship is about a rich old bastard literally sticking it to a working man, so what else needs to be said there, really? The personal stakes, and aftershocks, are clear enough, and the larger implications radiate outward—or should—as we watch these men flounder and suffer and delude themselves.
We're given to understand that the murder was a delayed reaction to John's being rejected by Mark, and also the culmination of unchecked volatile behavior by John seen throughout the story, including a moment in which he tries to "motivate" his wrestling team by firing a revolver over their heads during training. This, too, makes the arrogance of the rich and the cowed pliancy of working people implicit, even as it merges with the characters' psychology. The film is quite effective when it's portraying the central triangle of Mark-Dave-John in terms of power and money, with John repeatedly demanding to be flattered and indulged and refusing to respect boundaries (emotional, sexual, financial, professional), and both brothers trying, to the extent that they can, to shrug off John's horrible behavior, or rationalize it in context of the opportunities he gives them.
The other major problem is Carell's performance and the makeup that's supposed to serve it. Both struck me as grossly (in every sense of the word) miscalculated, at once too much and not enough. Carrell is a terrific actor, especially in a light or broad comic mode, and I don't doubt that he'll get an Oscar nomination from playing John du Pont, because the character is multilayered and grotesque and the film is tonally miles away from the likes of "The 40-Year Old Virgin" and "The Office." But this just struck me as the most misguided Important Performance under heavy makeup since Nicole Kidman and her nose won an Oscar for "The Hours," or maybe since Jack Nicholson sputtered and yelled through "Hoffa" beneath a false nose and forehead that seemed to have been mushed onto his face.
The proboscis in this film doesn't so much join with Carell's face as perch there, beneath an obvious latex forehead extension. These prosthetic additions are a slightly different color and texture than the rest of the actor's face, and Carell (under Miller's direction) uses them in too-obvious ways, as if the makeup were a physical prop, like a hat or cane. In fully half of Carell's screen time, he is actually looking down his nose at other people, and when he walks, he juts his head out ahead of his chest like a broken down old turkey. In a sketch comedy-derived movie, this would all seem just right, and be hugely funny; it seems bizarrely out-of-place here, though, as if the role of John du Pont had been incarnated by the most repugnant "Saturday Night Live" character ever. (Tatum's face has been built out with putty as well, and Ruffalo's hair and beard are meticulously tended, but they don't overwhelm the actors' work quite so jarringly, save in one regrettable scene: a cut revealing Mark post-sexual exploitation by John has him wearing a frosted Kept Boy hairpiece that looks from a distance like a fur cap.)
This is all maddening considering how solid, even great, "Foxcatcher" often is. Tatum and Ruffalo are mostly superb, especially when they let the naturally intimate physicality of wrestling communicate the love that brothers might not otherwise express. There's a deep sadness and coiled anger at the heart of the story, a pervasive despair that's at once personal and political. But the encrusted Americana and jarring performance/makeup touches and dramatic elisions (there are really no characters but the main three) suffocate it. John du Pont's nose becomes a metaphor for the film's lapses in judgement: it's not good, and it probably wasn't necessary, but the film has committed to it, so we're stuck with it.
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