Director: Bennett Miller
Annapurna Pictures/Likely Story/Sony Pictures Classics
Director Bennett Miller combines themes/preoccupations from his previous movies (the behind-the-scenes ‘deals’ in sport, 2011’s Moneyball and the true-crime story that informs 2005’s Capote) for Foxcatcher, his latest.
The advance-hype is around Steve Carell’s Oscar hopes – for essentially wearing a fake-nose/make-up (hey, it worked for Nicole Kidman). Carell is fascinating here, but his is not the best performance. It’s more likely/deserving that the almost-always-on-form Mark Ruffalo will scoop the Oscar for Supporting Actor, Channing Tatum as a slightly-smaller John Cena is also wonderful.
Foxcatcher’s true-story is a weird one – if not the classic truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale then still unsettlingly odd. Carell plays John du Pont, eccentric millionaire, heir to the family fortune, some of his own promotional materials announce that it’s America’s richest family. Miller wants us to think of du Pont as a version of America, but the real take-home from this slow-moving, purposeful, powerful film is a study in the strange dynamics between men; the search for father figures, sibling rivalry, the homoeroticism of sport, or at least the training and discourse around the actual sport – the different ways a back or shoulder pat can be delivered/received; we need to watch for what happens in the spaces between the dialogue. This isn’t difficult – we’re drawn to it.
Tatum and Ruffalo play the Schultz brothers, gold medallist amateur wrestlers. Mark (Tatum) can’t seem to escape the shadow of older brother Dave (Ruffalo). Both are great wrestlers, but Dave is the one with the coaching nous, the talent and technique, he’s a born mentor. Mark is the “rock-star” waiting to happen – the protégé. He receives a phone call from du Pont, a wrestling enthusiast, he makes Mark an offer he can’t refuse, flies him to the family (“Foxcatcher”) ranch, supplies a room, pays him a wage, has him training what will become an elite Olympic squad. This is to restore hope to America and to prove to du Pont’s mother that he is some sort of leader/some sort of man.
If none of that sells you on the film the themes around the ugly side of philanthropy – skilfully handled, not an easy target (for the obvious reason that any finger-pointing can come across as bitterness, can be so easily unpicked with questions around who is actually doing what) – and the subtle, powerful performance of the three male leads should do the job. There’s a sinister tone that pervades, a creeping – creepy – tension. That’s all the work of Carell, his hooded-eyes bring a strange weight-of-the-world baggage, a nagging unhappiness, even as he begins to hint at unravelling he’s desperately clutching to any shred of megalomania, far more important than/just the same as any shred of dignity.
Foxcatcher perhaps shouldn’t work. That it does is the triumph – a sad, strange story, sure. But it’s about the performances, the way we instantly believe all three of the main players here, they each have their own sadness, their own bravado, they’re all at fault in the eyes of each other, we can only sit back and watch (our job, as audience) as the power-struggles morph and sprawl, the dynamics always shifting.
I haven’t seen a film (quite) like it. A stirring meditation on ego, the corruption of the mind due to perceived power, the frustration of accepting money in exchange for a piece of the soul and the absurdities around truly believing that money can buy anything.
There’s a lot to think about after. And that’s due to this strange story, sure. But mostly, again, it’s thanks to these extraordinary characters, the amazing performances, the belief from these actors, the way that translates – so easily – into us believing (in) them, their individual approaches, the way they sell this story.