Bennett Miller manages to consolidate disparate film genres in Foxcatcher, his follow-up to Moneyball. ; he again takes the uplifting themes of the popular sports drama – team-building, patriotism and the American dream, fame, pressure, mentorship – this time unnervingly overlaying them with the visual stlye of a psychological thriller.
Foxcatcher’s clever playing with audience expectations is also reflected in the casting. Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play wildly against type, especially Carell, who was once pronounced America’s funniest man. There is something daunting about watching a comedian with a famously pathetic persona play a villain so convincingly.
It’s based on the true story of the Schultz brothers, two Olympic wrestling champions, the younger of whom, Mark (Tatum) catches the eye of wealthy heir and wrestling enthusiast John E. Dupont (Carell). Dupont invites Mark to come live on Foxcatcher Farms, a wrestler’s training facility that is part of the Dupont family estate. If Mark signs on, Dupont will sponsor and coach him all the way to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, along with his brother and virtual guardian, Dave (Ruffalo). Mark smells a great opportunity, but Dave refuses to join the team.
This straightforward narrative arc could really be told in under a minute. But what complicates Foxcatcher, and makes it so enthralling, is its dense character development. When Dave finally confronts Mark, asking “Do you want to tell me what’s going on between you and Dupont?”, Mark’s long, chilling silence is powerful enough to a pin the audience to the mat. There is no answer, because the tension between the three men is irresolvable. Their conflicting statuses in a hyper-masculine milieu makes co-existence impossible.
It’s no surprise Miller won the best director award at Cannes this year. Each actor brings telling human touches to their role. Channing Tatum, for instance, eats like an athlete, taking obscenely large bites of food. Mark Ruffalo tugs musingly on his beard continually, and while training together, the two men drool, grunt, grope and pound one another with gusto. The crude mis-en-scene is masterfully done and perfectly fitting for a film with such a primitive sport as its subject.
Carell is almost unrecognizable as John Dupont, fitted with a prosthetic nose and covered with heavy make-up. He almost inhabits the character too well, his monotonous diction and awkward wooden gait potentially alienating the audience.
If the ending is underwhelming, struggling to make an impact after the big climax, the fact that this is more a character portrait than a crime-drama makes that less of a problem. Yes, plot comes in second, but with acting so memorable and direction so striking, Foxcatcher still manages to be a triumph.
Foxcatcher is currently on general release.
An avid film-goer and passionate cook, Maxine Napier Macdonald received a BA in cultural studies from McGill University last spring.