The desire to win is eclipsed by the aching need for love and acceptance in Bennett Miller’s riveting true life drama that is akin to a light being slowly extinguished.
More disquieting than many horror movies, the nauseating dread that Foxcatcher instills grips like a cold and clammy hand around the throat and refuses to let go well after the credits have rolled.
Just as Miller’s previous film Moneyball (2011) uses a sport (baseball) to explore the insecurities and fallibilities of men, the wrestling of Foxcatcher is of a more metaphorical nature.
While the surroundings of John du Pont’s (Steve Carell) Foxcatcher estate are as grandiose as they are expansive, the dark skies that hang overhead like a guillotine tell a very different and troubling story.
Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is flown out to the estate at the behest of du Pont, who announces that he wants Mark to lead his wrestling squad, ‘Team Foxcatcher’, and win gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
While they come from opposite ends of the societal spectrum, Mark and du Pont are very alike; each man lives in the shadow of another, lacks a father and has a burning desire to be recognised for their own achievements.
Talk of glory and “making America great again” may strike a chord, but it is a delusion both men are willing to believe for their own sake. Mark has long lived in the shadow of his more popular and charismatic older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who is also a gold medal-winning wrestler, but has a stable family with wife Nancy (Sienna Miller, who has little to do) and their kids; while the sense of entitlement and arrogance inherent in du Pont is undercut by the inadequacy he feels in the presence of his aged mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who views wrestling as a ‘low’ sport.
Du Pont’s state-of-the-art facilities and Mark’s natural ability initially make for a formidable team, but Mark’s self-destructive nature and Du Pont’s unpredictability breeds a toxicity that is allowed to fester, especially when Dave is lured to Team Foxcatcher with promises of wealth and greatness.
The impressive Tatum plays Mark as a pathetic, childlike figure ripe for exploitation. From his hunched, shuffling gait to his monosyllabism, the glory of winning gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics has been replaced by an emptiness no amount of medals can fill.
An early scene has Mark giving a talk about winning to a bunch of bored and confused schoolkids and upon receiving the cheque we discover it’s his brother the school had originally booked before it cuts to Mark standing in line for a burger which he hides away in his car to eat.
Later in the film, du Pont suddenly gets more hands on with training when he spies his mother being wheeled in. While the team is content to indulge the show, she is soon bored and quickly leaves; with his most important audience gone, du Pont takes a back seat once more.
These moments speak to the fraudulence of both men and subtly shift the ground beneath our feet so we are never certain of what either will do next. Some have cited the film’s slow pacing as being glacial and boring, but that’s to miss the coiling tension that Miller winds up before exploding into acts of random violence.
Much has been made of the training session scene between Mark and Dave that speaks volumes about each brother without either barely saying a word. It’s one of a number of examples where the visuals and reactions of characters do more than a thousand lines of dialogue ever can.
Tatum has never been better and holds his own against Ruffalo, who has the more difficult role of a man torn between his family, the love he has for his brother and the temptation of du Pont’s pay cheque. Carell, meanwhile, disappears into the role of du Pont, imbuing him with a Nosferatu-esque stillness and a detachment that only a man of his great wealth could have. Whilst he looks down his considerable nose on those around him, his heavy-lidded eyes disguise an unnerving capriciousness.
The American Dream is writ large on many films, but rarely has it been so perverted than in the mesmeric Foxcatcher.
I particularly liked the scene where Du Pont’s mother mentions his train set, and asks if he is okay with her donating it. When he responds, curtly, with a “I don’t care about the train set, Mother. Give it away, I don’t care” I think that speaks volumes to the disconnection between the mother and Du Pont, as you’ve mentioned above. That scene shows us just a glimpse of how she views him, basically like a child, and I think it’s interesting that she then follows that up with her opinion of the “low” sport of wrestling. Obviously she’s totally in control of the situation. She knows what she’s doing. That question of the toy train was a perfect lead-in to how she really feels about her son’s involvement in professional wrestling. To her, his involvement is impulsive, immature – childlike. Thus why I think she even brought up the train set, or that he had been upset about giving it away in the past. Arguably he hasn’t thought about that train set in years, nor has probably laid eyes on it for that long as well. But if he’s going to act impulsively, if he’s going to act childlike, then why wouldn’t she assume he would want to hold onto other aspects of his childhood?
That is a great scene; pretty pivotal to du Pont’s character and a strong metaphot for why he’s set up a wrestling HQ. Thanks for that very insightful feedback.
Not exactly a pick-me-up, but definitely one of the better-acted films I’ve seen in quite some time. Good review.
The acting is pretty impressive, especially from Ruffalo. Thanks Dan.
Wholeheartedly agree here, bro! This was a slow but nonetheless gripping film. I absolutely loved it and the three central performances are just sublime. Ruffalo is always great stuff but I don’t normally like Carell or Tatum and they are both wonderful here.
Hey Mark, sorry for the late response. It does go on about 10-15 mins too long and the pace is leisurely, but the performances are so absorbing it covers any faults the film may have. Thanks for the feedback as always buddy.
Very nice review. I liked this one too. I think the ending is a bit clunky but I agree Tatum has never been better. Never been sold on him as an actor, but more performances like this may change that.
Thank you Keith. I thought there was a sadness to Tatum’s performance that I haven’t seen him bring to the screen before. He held his own against Ruffalo.
Good stuff! I like the likening of du Pont to Nosferatu (in fact the vampire analogy works in a couple of ways, I suppose). It has been a good few weeks but this film has stayed with me and I will definitely watch it again in the future.
Much obliged Stu. Thanks for the kind comments. I imagine I will revisit this at some point in the near future; it’ll be interesting to see how it stands up.
Great review Mark. “It’s one of a number of examples where the visuals and reactions of characters do more than a thousand lines of dialogue ever can.” Indeed! Less is more and there’s such intensity in the quiet moments in this film. It’s not the most entertaining film but I was engrossed because of the performances.
Thank you Ruth! Always love it when people pick out my quotes; means I’ve done something right! ‘Entertaining’ is not the word to describe this that’s for sure. Entrancing is the one I’d pick.
“Nauseating dread” = wish I could go back in time to re-write my review just to steal that line, sums it up perfectly.
Cheers Jay! Feel free to use it in other reviews!
Spot on mate. I thought this was fantastic, although more slow paced than I anticipated. Carrell has my vote for the Oscar but I know it won’t happen.
Cheers Chris. The pace is a little on the lethargic I must admit, but it’s absorbing stuff. I doubt Carrel will get the Oscar too; I think it’s Redmayne’s to lose.
Can’t wait to see this. Great read!
Thank you Dan. Well worth your time.
Your concluding line is as powerful a statement as the film itself my friend. Incredible stuff.
And as you recall this movie made it quite high on my personal favorites from last year. It just combined absolutely knock-out performances (the ones from Carell and Tatum are just so out of left field) with absolutely suffocating atmosphere and a very somber tone. This worked wonders for me. 😀
I do recall! It maybe goes on about 15 mins too long in my opinion, but it’s pretty faultless. One of the very best American films of the past few years. Cheers for the great feedback as always Tom my boy!
I was reading something fascinating about the way they chose to shoot the ending. Clearly the real life scenario played out a bit differently. It’s interesting to think if there was a way Miller could have hewn even tighter to reality and dispensed with some of the early character development in favor of a “more faithful” ending. Either way, yes. One great American product right here. I look at Steve Carell in an entirely new light now.
Yes, I read something about that too. Apparently, Miller downplayed the final police confrontation, which in this day and age is something of a surprise.