Foxcatcher, the latest film from documentarian turned Oscar-nominated feature film director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball), is a lot of different things. It’s a psychological study looking at a couple of men who are more similar than either probably wants to admit. It’s a performance showcase for its three leads, all of whom deliver career-best work. It’s a celebration of quality filmmaking that draws attention to its various technical and artistic achievements. But above all else, Foxcatcher is a lesson in subtlety. What it chooses not to do is just interesting as what it actually does.
The film has to contend with the fact that everyone watching it already knows its ending. It’s not a spoiler for me to tell you that Foxcatcher is based on the true story of Mark Schulz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic Gold winning wrestler, and his professional/personal relationship with John du Pont (Steve Carell), a billionaire birdwatcher/stamp collector/wrestling enthusiast whose increasingly erratic behavior resulted in him murdering Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), Mark’s brother and also an Olympic wrestling champion.
Both Mark and du Pont spend much of Foxcatcher trying to prove something to themselves. Mark, despite being a very accomplished competitor, still feels as if he lives in the shadow of his brother. John du Pont wants to be taken seriously, both by his mother, who views the sport of wrestling as “low”, and perhaps by himself. He all but forces the wrestlers on Team Foxcatcher to call him a “mentor” and “coach” on camera, despite his only real contributions being financial.
Even as we see both men break down, they don’t speak about it to each other or anyone else. Neither men want the world to know they’re troubled, so the script (from Dan Futterman and Max E. Frye), spares us the unrealistic over-explanation of the psychological issues Mark and du Pont clearly have. The writing is minimalist in the truest sense. It’s Hemingway-esque. What keeps us invested in these men is the delicate work of the actors.
Much had been made of the physical transformations Tatum and Carell had to go through for their respective role. Tatum’s body is even more important to the liveliness of his character here than in some of his action movies. He spends much of the film in a wrestling singlet, and due to his intense training for the film, he certainly looks the part. At no point does it feel like you’re supposed to have to buy that a movie star is a champion wrestler. The prosthetic work that went into Carell’s entire face grabs your attention from the first frame of it you see.
But these performances are about more than just the physical side. The most intense scenes in the film are the quiet, intimate conversations between Carell and Tatum featuring dialogue that keeps the real themes bubbling below the surface. Mark Schultz always feels like he has something to prove. We see this in the way Tatum breathes, intensifies his eyes, sticks his jaw out, etc. John du Pont speaks with a timidness that keeps his character in the grey area between damaged and completely psychotic. Carell does not over-act. He allows the implied context of certain scenes and the clouded motives behind his characters actions to build tension. Sticking with Bennett Miller films, Carell’s turn really reminds me of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. Both actors could have been way over-the-top without anyone calling them out on it due to the quality of the films and the eccentricity of their characters. But they aren’t.
The minimalist feel is also aided by the score and cinematography on top of the acting and writing. Miller’s vision for Foxcatcher was clear, and he made sure all of his collaborators aligned with that vision. Rob Simonsen’s score has been DQ’d by the Oscars due to its reliance on classical music, but fits in the film perfectly. You don’t ever really notice it. In a film like Foxcatcher, that’s a good thing. Greig Fraser’s photography feels foggy and gritty, even during the shots of indoor wrestling. He uses the landscape well, making the du Pont estate its own mysterious character.
Critics of Foxcatcher have pointed out its subtlety, the fact that it keeps its themes below the surface and never fully dives into its characters heads, as a flaw. This film isn’t going to hold your hand and show you the definitive meaning to everything. And why should it? Are we so dumbed-down as viewers that we have to be told everything in order to get value out of a story? Miller shows us what happens and then, rather than wasting time explicitly explaining it all, builds his way up to the tragic ramifications of everything that happens. This isn’t a film where you’re going to hear John du Pont try to explain why he murdered Dave Schultz. If that’s your thing, there are plenty of films and television shows out there for you. Foxcatcher just isn’t one of them.
Despite his character being written as sort of the typical family man/good guy type, Mark Ruffalo brings it as always. He’s the one who raises the questions, and in the final act, says to Mark and du Pont everything we, the audience, want to. Dave Schultz warms up many scenes with his kindness and world view, but Ruffalo brings enough power to the role that when we see him grappling with Tatum, we believe he’s really a world champion wrestler as well.
The actual wrestling sequences are quite well done. They’re raw as opposed to cinematic. The slams and slaps and breathing ring louder than the music.
Foxcatcher takes its sweet old time to get where it’s going, which given the fact that we know the ending, can be problematic at times. I appreciate a slow burn, but in the second half of the film, it feels like the very well-built character conflicts are thrown on the backburner during certain lengthy scenes. That’s not a huge problem though, seeing as Foxcatcher, at 134 minutes long, is a relatively tight movie given its style and real-world timeline. If you come to Foxcatcher expecting to see a gripping murder mystery that keeps raising the stakes, again, this isn’t your movie. The actual murder is such a small part of the film, both thematically and literally, that Miller probably could’ve cut it out if he really wanted to.
There aren’t any happy moments in Foxcatcher. Even sequences where the characters are laughing or celebrating have a black cloud over them. While its aesthetically pleasing, it’s aesthetically pleasing in a grim way. There’s no comedic relief and every scene feels as if it’s about to erupt into violent chaos. I say all of this as a compliment.
Even if Foxcatcher doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, if you’re a fan of movies, it’s worth seeing for the performances alone. If some of what I’ve attempted to describe does sound appealing than you’re likely to view Foxcatcher as a masterpiece. It will likely do down as a strong love or hate movie, and already reminds me of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in that way (which, like Foxcatcher, I loved).
There’s a lot missing from Foxcatcher. It’s hard to view it and not think of ways the story could’ve been told differently. But Bennett Miller decided on a specific tone before the script was even written, and stuck to that throughout the entire process. In an era where it’s all about more, more, and more; everything that Foxcatcher lacks feels intentional. It’s a new peak for the director Miller, the D.P. Fraser, and the entire cast. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and well worth your attention for a couple of hours.