Foxcatcher (2014) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for some drug use and a scene of violence
Running Time: 134 min.
Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd
Small role: Mark Schultz
Director: Bennett Miller
Screenplay: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Review published November 30, 2014
Based on a true story, Foxcatcher relates the tale of John du Pont (Carell, Alexander and the...), the heir to his family's massive ammunition and chemical fortune, his obsession with the sport of wrestling, and, in particular, his relationship Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum, 22 Jump Street), as well as his coach brother, also an Olympian, Dave (Ruffalo, Begin Again). Both Mark and Dave have just won Olympic gold in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, with younger brother Mark having his eye toward possibly doing it again in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, while his more popular brother Dave sets about becoming a full-time collegiate wrestling coach. Although the events that transpired are a matter of public record, I'll avoid spoilers in this review for those who would prefer to go into it with a clean slate.
At the time we meet Mark, he's living day to day in relative squalor, three years removed from Los Angeles glory. Things take a turn for the better when he is approached by a rep for John du Pont, who invites him up to the Du Pont family estate in Pennsylvania in order to show him the Foxcatcher Farm private wrestling facilities he has had built, and to offer him room, board and a modest salary if he'd like to train there, garnering John prestige and fulfilling his desire to be a 'patriot' by seeing America win Olympic gold, thanks to his tutelage (or, at least, the outward appearance of it).
Bennett Miller, who has excelled in delivering quality, Best Picture-nominated biopics in the past with Moneyball and Capote, even if they utilized a liberal amount of dramatic license, gives us yet another solid effort, though I do believe it is still a step down in a couple of key areas from those works. Perhaps the most problematic to Foxcatcher is that the movie doesn't really delve very deeply into the psychology of the motivations of the characters for doing or feeling much of what they do. For instance, there's a moment in which Mark begins to drift further away from John, but the reasons why aren't made clear, leaving quite a bit of wild speculation that doesn't bear fruit. Could John have made an inappropriate advance or demand? If he did, it's only suggested and never even outright implied, which, for an in-depth biography is absolutely key to understanding the story as more than just a collection of scenes kinda-sorta based on real events.
The best aspect of Foxcatcher comes through the strong performances from its lead players. While Carell has the showiest of the roles, playing an especially creepy man who has delusions of grandeur, partially due to being born into a family with exceedingly high expectations to continue the tradition of excellence, it's really for the performances of Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum that the film ultimately succeeds. They ground their characters into a necessary reality that makes a mannered performance like Carell's work, as he is under some fairly obvious prosthetics, and delivers his lines with the kind of emotion rare to find outside of a "Star Trek" alien. We allow for Du Pont's eccentricities primarily because we buy into the Schultz brothers 100%, and if they buy Du Pont, we're along for the ride.
Interestingly, the 'shadows' one lives under is a big theme of the film, with both John and Mark living under their own giants -- Mark under Dave because he has coached him to greatness all along, while John finds it heard to find his own path after living with his highly influential mother (Redgrave, The Butler), whose many accolades in the realm of equestrian sport leaves John far behind in his own achievements. This may be seen as a motivating factor for John to try to be the person that is known as the mentor for others, even if he has to utilize his seemingly endless capital to purchase their loyalty. John relates how the only friend he ever had ended up being purchased for him by his mother, but in the end, it seems to be the only way he can actually make a friend -- his acquaintances are only there because he pays them to be.
Foxcatcher is a fairly dour motion picture, with the only laughs that transpire being the uncomfortable kind, especially seeing the lengths of the Du Pont ego, or perhaps delusions of grandeur, that suggests that having the appearance of a winner is just as valid as actually winning in life. Interestingly, the film often infuses many of the speeches with the kind of patriotic lingo that one might find in a war picture, suggesting that being the best amateur wrestler in the world is not just a personal achievement, but a test of one's resolve to champion America, elevating the stakes to beyond just what it means to win individual matches.
Even John's assertion that people call him "Eagle", America's national symbol, only speaks to the kind of haughty nature he perceives his mission to be leading Americans to ultimate victory to be. Not that the reason why all of these world-class wrestlers are there come from John's desire for success. Under his 'mentorship', they become a slovenly, drugged-out lot who begin to begrudgingly practice with only months left to go before the Olympic tryouts.
With solid performances, consistent tone, and interesting setting, Foxcatcher emerges as a solid dramatic biopic, certainly aiming toward its own gold award in the form of Oscars, though it perhaps wrestles too much with its own storytelling issues to ultimately emerge as the ultimate champion on the big screen in 2014. Nevertheless, the actors captivate, and it's an interesting look at the events, even if we seem to be missing too many pieces of the overall puzzle to form a complete picture. It may be a slow burn of a drama, but it eventually catches its fire (and its fox) in the end.
©2014 Vince Leo