Foxcatcher is a real mixed bag, but it does feature an excellent performance – just not the one you’re expecting.
Coach is a father. Coach is a mentor. Coach has great power on athlete’s life.
–John du Pont
What is the cost of greatness? It’s a question I’ve pondered a lot these past few months, and it’s one of the biggest themes of this cinematic year. From Birdman’s Riggan Thomson attempting to regain past glory and artistic prestige, to Andrew destroying his body and personal life in pursuit of elite percussive prowess in Whiplash, and even Stephen Hawking’s drive to reshape our understanding of physics despite his physical limitations in The Theory of Everything, obsession and achievement have owned the screen in 2014. Even the films that don’t address the question directly (Whiplash: more – Theory of Everything: less) have it lingering at their edges. What is the price of reaching the top of one’s field, and is it worth it compared to everything you have to give up in the process?
Add Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher to the list of films touching on these questions. The film tells the story of brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), gold medal-winning Olympic wrestlers who are taken under the wing of a wealthy wrestling enthusiast. Mark and Dave are working-class men, brothers scrapping to get by in pursuit of their dreams. The film’s opening scene shows Mark giving an uncomfortable speech about wrestling to a group of disinterested elementary school students for the paltry sum of $20. Afterwards he takes his gold medal home to his rundown apartment and makes ramen noodles. Mark is devoted to his craft, working to be ready to represent himself and his country in his next match. Unfortunately, national pride doesn’t pay bills at the end of the month. The medal might be worth more than everything else Mark owns combined.
One night Mark receives a curious phone call asking if he’ll take a day off from training and spend a day with a wealthy supporter who’s interested in meeting him. Transported to a country estate in sharp contrast to his own dilapidated home, Mark meets John du Pont (Steve Carell), an insulated billionaire from one of America’s richest families. The du Ponts made their wealth supplying munitions to American armies, and now own the largest chemical company in the world in addition to their world-class thoroughbred stable, called Foxcatcher. John du Pont’s heart, however, lies not in racing but in wrestling, and he dreams of making Foxcatcher the home of Team USA’s wrestling program. The du Pont estate lies adjacent to Valley Forge, and while viewing the battleground, du Pont laments the lack of attention shown to Mark, Dave, and their wrestling achievements. He insists that it’s America’s national duty to honor men like Mark and Dave, and America has failed to do so.
But what America has failed to do, John du Pont offers to make right, offering Mark access to the world-class wrestling facilities at Foxcatcher and a paycheck to train. Du Pont asks Mark what sum he would need to train and teach at Foxcatcher exclusively, and Mark names the highest sum that he can think of. Du Pont agrees without blinking an eye. Mark quickly commits to the wrestling stable, but Dave is unwilling to uproot his family and move across the country, to John du Pont’s dismay. Thus, Mark goes to work, training under du Pont’s watchful eye in facilities beyond his previously meager options or his wildest dreams.
While watching Foxcatcher, I couldn’t help but watch John du Pont on screen and wonder if the role of the wealthy, insulated wrestling booster was originally meant for director Bennett Miller’s longtime collaborator Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who died earlier this year. That may not be true at all (I went back and looked at timelines, and the film wrapped shooting months before the actor’s death, so Hoffman was theoretically available) but I have to wonder. It’s the type of role that would seem to have been right up his alley. Instead, we get Steve Carell.
I’m not here to completely bury Carell. With a prosthetic beak of a nose, and a nasal drone of a voice, the comedian physically disappears into the role. Carell affects both a weakling physique and a barrel chest, like a blue-blooded man who’s never known physical activity beyond riding horses gone further yet to seed. He’s obviously spent hours watching video of the real John du Pont, and captures his hollow stare and raspy, nasal voice perfectly. It’s impressive mimicry, and one heck of a neat trick. Unfortunately, that one trick can’t endure over the course of a 134-minute film. What Carell lacks is range: as Mark and du Pont’s relationship unravels, Carell is never able to portray John du Pont as anything beyond the same raspy, self-inflated man. Carell’s version of angry du Pont is the same as relaxed du Pont, just with a slight edge on his voice. His aim may be to show us a man who was protected by his wealth and was never forced to adapt his behavior for social interactions, but it simply doesn’t work. Carell doesn’t have the nuance to pull it off, and du Pont’s strange behavior lacks any real sense of menace or danger despite the implication that the wrestlers training at Foxcatcher should be worried by du Pont’s conduct. It’s easy to see what an actor like the aforementioned Hoffman could have brought to the role, giving the performance some subtle but necessary range.
Alternately, however, I have high praise for Channing Tatum. Both he and Ruffalo do some impressive physical work, and Foxcatcher is almost certainly his best performance. The sheer physicality of Tatum’s movement onscreen is wonderful to watch. We see Mark practicing wrestling moves endless times throughout the film, and he’s incredibly powerful and graceful as he works on his footwork and holds. Tatum’s physicality is one of the film’s best assets whether he’s grappling with an opponent or merely shadowboxing across a manicured lawn. A wrestling practice between Mark and Dave at the beginning of the film shows the two as training partners, opponents, angry brutes, and loving brothers all through wordless physical movement. It’s pure magic and my favorite scene in the film.
Tatum isn’t only good in the film’s wrestling scenes, though. If our prejudice is to see Channing Tatum as a muscular lunkhead of a man, he plays that to his advantage as the focused wrestler. Mark Schwartz may not be terribly smart, but he’s driven and emotional. Despite being a gold medalist and world champion himself, he struggles to escape his older brother’s shadow, and sees independence at Foxcatcher an avenue to making his own name, despite du Pont’s desire to have both Mark and Dave in his stable. When Dave finally joins Foxcatcher himself, it upsets Mark’s independence, but offers us a chance to understand just how important their irrevocable brotherly bond really is. When Mark is too overweight to wrestle, it’s Dave, not John du Pont, who’s there to help him lose twelve pounds in 90 minutes. Foxcatcher’s best moments are when it’s a film about brotherhood, with Dave, not du Pont, playing the key role in Mark’s life.
Part of the fault lies with the director, Miller, whose film is so over-directed and sculpted that it sucks the life out of the picture. The director is too busy setting up emotionless set pieces that highlight the contrast of du Pont’s high-class upbringing with the “low” sport of wrestling that he leaves his film out in the cold. Miller’s film never goes deep enough to connect on any meaningful level. What is it that drives John du Pont? Despite claiming a deep affinity for wrestling, he’s obviously never wrestled a day in his life. Is he really supporting the program as a patriotic duty like he says? Or is he really just a power-hungry, self-obsessed man who seeks the limelight via his wrestlers’ achievements? Maybe du Pont just want to prove himself as a leader of men to his disapproving mother, played briefly by Vanessa Redgrave? The film hints at all of these and more, but investigates none of them, offering us a handful of possibilities but no answers. Miller casts his net wide instead of deep, and the results are lackluster. Instead of giving us one good answer, he offers up a handful of half-thought ones, allowing the audience to choose whichever unsatisfactory conclusion they like best. It’s impossible to miss the signposts for what’s coming in the film’s finale, but Foxcatcher never bothers to satisfactorily ask just why it happens, or the emotional aftermath of the act.
I think the story in Foxcatcher is worthy of a film, but Miller takes the wrong route in the telling. In the end, it really isn’t a true crime story at all. Much like Whiplash, Foxcatcher is a war film. It’s a story about the bands of brotherhood forged in combat, and the resulting pain of loss. Unfortunately, Bennett Miller misses that and Foxcatcher ends up wrestling with itself in the dark instead of standing on the podium in glory. A surprising Oscar-season disappointment.