2014 - 134 minutes
Directed by: Bennett Miller
Written by: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall
Foxcatcher is emotionally detached to a fault. It aims for stark exploration of toxic, corrupted relationships that erupt into a shocking crime, but the impassive approach only succeeds in wasting three solid acting performances. You could call it deliberate, which it is, or the film could more accurately be described as listless. Somehow, director Bennett Miller made metrics and statistics entertaining in Moneyball, but this true crime story involving an eccentric multi-millionaire and Olympic wrestlers languishes in sullenness. The prosthetic nose spites its face.
The pronounced schnoz belongs to John du Pont (Steve Carell), filthy rich heir to his family’s fortune living on the sprawling Foxcatcher Farm in Pennsylvania. He’d be the first to tell you that he’s an accomplished ornithologist, philanthropist, and patriot. He’s also a wresting enthusiast and reaches out to 1984 Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) with an offer to train in a private facility on his estate. Schultz is sort of shuffling through a solitary life, training hard and retreating to a cramped apartment filled with trophies. The world seems to have passed Mark by, his only aim “to be the best in the world” and his only connection to more established big brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also a gold medalist with the added bonus of a wife and kids and steady work.
Lured by du Pont’s attention, the impressive Foxcatcher gym, and money, Mark eagerly takes John up on his offer. The relationship starts with a World Championship but deteriorates into a strange co-dependency with du Pont the father figure and Shultz the plaything. At first resisting John’s offers to join Team Foxcatcher, Dave agrees to come to the estate out of concern for his brother – and, of course, John’s checkbook – getting pulled into du Pont’s web of weirdness.
Carell, Tatum, and Ruffalo are all solid, but to what end? If we know the true story – which I assume most of us do – we know what du Pont is going to eventually do, but there is no trackable journey to that point. It also doesn’t help that the film jumps over several years of time at a key point in the story with no real demarcation. Du Pont is obviously “off” from the moment he meanders on screen and Carell’s halting, nasally droning and blank stares never hint at anything resembling an arc. He’s an eccentric multi-millionaire always set to “odd” and there’s no depth to his pathology. He buys 50-caliber guns, shoots guns with local police, snorts cocaine, and in one scene tries to impress his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave). It’s Rich-guy Eccentricity 101 dialed down to fit the movie’s glacial pace.
Tatum and Ruffalo carry their physicality in their walks, their differentiating feature Tatum’s pera-straight-face and Ruffalo’s more congenial, welcoming demeanor. Both suggest there’s more beneath the surface, which is impressive considering the lack of dimension they’re given in the script from E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman.
One of the best scenes in the film is the first encounter between the Schultz brothers, when a gentle embrace becomes quickly indistinguishable from a wrestling hold, and eventually ends with one of them bloodied. The moment encapsulates competition, obsession, and fractured psyche better than anything else in the protracted somberness. Miller is committed to mood, and his actors occasionally help to achieve it, but the aesthetic comes at the expense of gravity and accessibility. Foxcatcher is hard to get into and hard to take anything away from.