Foxcatcher, US, 2014. DIR. Bennett Miller. Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller
In Cold Blood, the novel penned by the captivating Truman Capote, and the subject of Bennett Miller’s directorial debut Capote, is a title that could just as easily apply to his third feature Foxcatcher. As we bear witness to a power struggle between three men, something menacing and elegiac weighs heavy in the wintry air, as if Miller is mourning a bye-gone America.
Heir to the titular Foxcatcher Farms, John E (Eleuthère or ‘Eagle’) du Pont of the excessively wealthy ‘du Pont family’ shuffles about with an air of awkwardness, entitlement and cold-blooded detachment. There is something distinctly reptilian, and thoroughly disturbing about Steve Carell’s breathy and stilted portrayal of the eccentric billionaire and his manipulative involvement in the US Olympic wrestling team. And whether or not you come to the cinema informed of the real story – though it’s perhaps best enjoyed without a trip to Wikipedia (especially considering the historical timeline has been edited and condensed) – an atmosphere of foreboding and slow-burning devastation will threaten to suffocate.
That the Schultz brothers; Dave and Mark – Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum respectively, have already won their Olympic Gold Medals for wrestling in Los Angeles 1984 tells you a little about where the story is heading. Triumph has been sampled, and the colour palette and mood of the story indicates that the aftertaste will be one of bitterness and sorrow. Mark has descended into a hollow, if brutish, shell of a man reduced to staring at his medals and hoping to relive his former glory. Dave, on the other hand, is settled with his wife (Sienna Miller) and kids in Colorado and like a gentle-giant seems the more emotionally stable and amiable of the two.
It comes as little surprise then, that Mark Schultz is so easily lured to du Pont’s Foxcatcher farms, in search of reassurance, validation and self-belief. Alongside the hefty pay-cheque, he is seduced by du Pont’s sprawling, if meaningless, meditation on patriotism, hope and victory. What masquerades as the ultimate American Dream, quickly descends into an American nightmare. Moved onto the farm, Mark finds himself under the volatile scrutiny of du Pont, himself failing to live up to the expectations of Foxcatcher’s steely, wheelchair bound matriarch (the ever regal Vanessa Redgrave). The landscape itself is isolated, perpetually covered in mist and somewhat akin to a haunted house, certainly not giving off a welcoming vibe.
And though Du Pont’s sponsorship proves initially successfully – under a training regime started by Dave’s guidance – with Mark winning the 1985 World Championships, their relationship soon unravels into something tempestuous, uncomfortable and physically destructive. A corruptor and leech, disguised as a mentor, du Pont gradually changes from a supportive father figure, to a manipulative stain on Mark’s history. Subsequently, Mark too makes the tragic decline from champion to cocaine-snorting rent-boy (their relationship has contentious homoerotic undertones).
John du Pont is marked by physical weakness and mental instability, a man that has bought his way into the inner circles of sporting society and certainly doesn’t belong there. There are moments he appears little more than a spoiled brat, stomping his feet and firing his pistol anytime he doesn’t get his own way. Indeed, when Dave Schultz initially refuses his six-figure offer to join the farm, he looks utterly bewildered by the concept. Carell is unrecognisably sinister in the role and will no doubt pick up an Oscar nomination for this career U-turn.
Like a strange combination of Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter, du Pont’s lurking in the shadows and mind-game trickery makes for an unpredictable and maniacal villain; a ticking time bomb that could explode at any time.
Tatum and Ruffalo, however, are never overshadowed or intimidated by Carell’s indefatigable performance, bringing dynamism and nuance to the fold. Tatum is hulking and sullen, bristling with skittish machismo and pent-up anger – there’s even something a little bull terrier about him; robust, muscular and not as handsome as we’re used to. He relies on the steadying hand and wise logic of his older brother, whilst simultaneously desperate to escape his shadow. In an early sparring practice together, Mark inflicts a bloodied nose on Dave, perhaps not altogether unintentional, but with calm determination it is Dave who achieves the final athletic blow. Ruffalo gives the kind of measured, empathetic and assured performance we have come to expect of him, and considering the climax of the story it feels a shame we don’t spend more screen-time in his presence.
The narrative attempts to evenly distribute time between this oddball trio, and only marginally succeeds at doing so. Dave is the supportive pillar upon which his younger brother depends, brought in to join the Foxcatcher training program when Mark spirals out of physical shape. But it is Mark and John who form the ultimate focus of the story. They are the two in need of salvation and whose struggle is most outwardly depicted. As tensions rise to insurmountable heights, Dave is caught in the crossfire between the man hell-bent on control and the brother trapped in his grasp. It makes for a gripping, if uneven story.
Penned by E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman, all the plot points required for a taut psychological thriller are present, but any emotional investment in the story is missing. We never spend enough time with each character or excavate past their surfaces to form a meaningful connection. Mark is angry, John is mad, and Dave is normal, and whilst their head-butting, body-slamming ménage a trois spells out compelling – if dour – viewing, I never felt the loss or tragedy that is at the heart of the story.
Perhaps this is a result of Miller’s hushed, restrained direction. The action occurs in the midst of distilled, almost torturously silent scenes of repression and rage. Miller has snapshots of brilliance, as the characters are forced to confront themselves and their demons – particularly a scene where Mark reacts badly to a wrestling loss in a hotel room or John releases a stream of horses onto his property. These are scenes potent with achingly poignant symbolism, and Miller proves deft at saying more in that which is left unsaid. Yet there is also something so oppressively bleak and ambiguous about the direction, that even the wrestling scenes provide little release. Ambiguity is perhaps the only way to explore a story as muddled and murky as this, nevertheless, the emotional damage of the characters and density of the plot can weigh heavy on the audience, to the extent, that whilst it’s an admirable cinematic feat, it’s certainly not an enjoyable one.
Shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Let Me In) in a subdued, wintry colour palette, Foxcatcher simmers with disappointment and disillusionment. Ultimately, the state-of-the-art training facility proves to be a prison for all three of its characters, and the sport that bred their success also inspires their undoing. Instead of ‘giving America hope’, John du Pont exacts a crime which only creates despair.
Verdict: A chilling parable of unchecked ambition and moral corruption. With three virtuoso performances at its core, and under Bennett Miller’s steady guidance, this is a mesmerising and haunting awards contender.