Review – Foxcatcher
True success is all about cleverly managing the perception of success. With the right amount of spin, something can be perceived as a triumph without achieving anything. The country best at doing this is the United States of America or as Stephen Colbert said, “In the history of mankind there has never been a greater country than America. You could say we’re the number one nation at being the best at greatness”. Foxcatcher goes searching for the myth of American prominence in the form of a true crime and sports drama hybrid.
Olympic Gold Medal winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) has hit hard times following the 1984 Games. Mark’s brother and fellow gold medallist, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), has leveraged his win into a coaching career. When Mark is invited by the wealthy John du Pont (Steve Carell) to move to the du Pont estate and help form Team Foxcatcher to train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Mark jumps at the opportunity, hoping to focus on his training and finally step out of the shadow of his revered brother.
Director Bennet Miller starts Foxcatcher where most sporting movies end. Instead of seeing Mark win the gold medal, we see him months after, being paid $20 to talk to a half-empty hall of school students. The tone for the story is set and it’s bleak, close to the anti-sports picture, no motivational speech is delivered without a solid dose of irony. The pathway to tragedy is laid meticulously by Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman (working from Mark Schultz’s autobiography) through Mark’s immersion in du Pont’s world and the mind-games between du Pont, Mark and Dave.
Miller’s camera obsesses with du Pont’s fragility in the shadow of his family’s wealth. There are shots of du Pont flanked by large portraits of the men who established the family empire, a constant reminder of his privilege and failure to carve out his own legacy. Miller has the patience to hold the camera on the mundane so you can soak in details. Sometimes it allows the film to burn a little too slow but there’s rarely not something to digest visually that enhances the subtext bubbling beneath Foxcatcher. The du Pont estate is bathed in American iconography; flags, eagles, guns, tanks, even du Pont’s nose bears resemblance to the beak of a bald eagle. Miller’s staging of du Pont in this patriotic atmosphere is melancholic, a useless by-product of American capitalism, and as he uses his chequebook to purchase respect, the mood becomes more sullen and desperate.
Carell’s interpretation of du Pont is like the opening riff of AC/DC’s Back in Black, the power of the pause is amplified, creating anticipation for each piece of dialogue while drawing you deeper into the enigma of the character. Carell’s du Pont is a similar beast to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd in The Master who proclaimed, “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man.” Du Pont explains he’s an ornithologist, conchologist, philatelist, coach, and sports enthusiast. His mantra is revealed when he tells Mark, “I am a patriot, and I want to see this country soar again.” Du Pont’s vulnerability is laid bare, with a hint of Norman Bates from Psycho, when he stresses to his mum (Vanessa Redgrave, giving off stares that could stop a heart beating), “Mother, I’m leading men, I’m giving America hope.”
Tatum’s portrayal of Mark as a forgotten American sporting hero has a lot in common with another great unappreciated siblings of cinema, Gredo Corleone (John Cazale) from The Godfather Part One and Two. It’s a physically imposing performance, dripping with insecurity, and absolutely captivating. Tatum is able to convey a purity to Mark’s ambition that’s slowly muddled as he’s manipulated by du Pont. Tatum casts the most tragic shadow over the film from start to finish.
Ruffalo transfers his easy-going charm onto Dave Schultz, whose status as a family man, Olympian, and well respected wrestling coach, make him the ‘richest’ man of the core three. Dave’s slow realisation of du Pont’s quest for reverence allows Ruffalo to shine in moments of distain for what Team Foxcatcher stands for.
Getting to the end of this review and I haven’t once mentioned the actual wrestling. Foxcatcher isn’t about the wrestling, a line you’re sure to hear a lot, and it’s true. Miller has used the story as a conduit to examine the hubris of America, and the fallout of never living up to the potential of a greatness that may have never existed.
The Popcorn Junkie