If you don’t know the true story behind Foxcatcher, then I suggest you avoid reading anything about the movie — apart from this spoiler-free review, of course — and anything about its real-life characters, American Olympic wrestling brothers Dave and Mark Schultz, as well as multimillionaire philanthropist John du Pont.
I know I say that about every movie, but in this case it’s really for your own good. Foxcatcher is one of those slow, contemplative films so doused in melancholy that you know it will either end up turning around into something inspirational or that something tragic is going to happen. Not knowing what will transpire, however, makes all the difference in the world in terms of the film’s emotional payoff after sitting through more than two hours of anticipation.
That’s not to say Foxcatcher doesn’t deliver the goods if you know the background, for it’s a story so remarkable — with characters so conducive to psychological drama — that you’ll tend to forget it’s all based on true events.
There’s the young wrestler, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who has low self-worth — despite being an Olympic gold medalist — from living in his older brother’s shadow and a lack of financial stability. There’s Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), the more confident and savvy of the siblings whose career is tied down by his commitment to his wife (Sienna Miller) and children. And then there’s John du Pont (Steve Carell), the old, mysterious loner with mommy issues who wants to use his incredible wealth and power to build a patriotic national wrestling team with the Schultz brothers as his headliners.
Together, they form a tense triangle of power politics driven by money, loyalty, manipulation and control, all of which takes place before a backdrop of the competitive and often cutthroat world of amateur wrestling.
That description may make Foxcatcher sound like some kind of exciting thriller, though the pace is actually deliberately snail-like at times, full of solitary moments of silence, contemplation and self-reflection. Even the wrestling scenes are intentionally muted so that you don’t get any of that manufactured adrenaline that typically comes with Hollywood spots movies. But the emotions are undoubtedly there, and they actually feel more genuine and amplified. Those who have seen director Bennett Miller’s other acclaimed films Capote and Moneyball, will have an idea of the style I am referring to.
The three main actors have received critical acclaim for their performances, especially Carell and Ruffalo, who received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. To be honest, I actually liked Tatum’s performance the most. Far from just a beefcake, he was terrific at projecting Mark’s obvious lack of self-esteem and desire for approval. Ruffalo was very good too, though he’s always at that level, while I would have been fine had Carell missed out on he nomination in favour of Selma‘s David Oyelowo. Not to say Carell wasn’t great in this, but he still reminded me of Steve Carell behind all the makeup.
Interestingly, after watching the film, I went online to check out what their real-life counterparts looked like. I was surprised to discover that none of them really had much of a resemblance, except for maybe Tatum, though it’s a stretch to call him a lookalike of Mark Schultz.
One of the things about the film that I liked — but recognise others might be frustrated by — is how the relationships, motives and states of mind of the characters are left ambiguous and open to interpretation. Was it mentor and student, coach and wrestler, father and son, brother and brother, or all of the above? And was I imagining things or was there even something sexual lurking beneath the surface? I have a feeling Miller wanted to let the audience decide for themselves so they can try to make sense of why things turned out the way they did in the end.
That said, Mark Schultz and some other wrestlers have already confirmed that Foxcatcher more or less made up the dynamics of the relationships and the character traits of the central trio. For the record, however, Schultz eventually recanted some of his criticisms of the film and against Bennett (who is up for Best Director), saying that he “loved” the film.
I personally found Du Pont to be by far the most fascinating character, and was naturally disappointed that his psyche was not explored in as much depth as it probably ought to have been. That said, such an endeavour would have added more time to a movie that was already feeling a little on the long side, and in any case I understand that the screenplay was based on Mark Schultz’s book and thus from his perspective.
Flaws and creative licenses aside, Foxcatcher works as a compelling yet disturbing drama powered by three excellent performances and the direction of a master storyteller. I have a feeling it will go down as one of the more memorable films of 2014.
4 stars out of 5