Foxcatcher is so dreary, so haunting, that I didn’t process just how much I liked this film until moments before I started typing out this review. “Like” is a relative term here. I find myself hard-pressed to believe anyone could walk out of Bennett Miller’s latest film and say that they enjoyed it. It’s too sunken in misery to be enjoyable, even when it subjects its audience to some truly uncomfortable moments that rattle a chuckle or two out. Yet, despite this, and despite finding myself growing to love it after a few days had passed to allow me to process it, this film has been made with remarkable skill, a technician’s sharp eye, and delivers three of the best and simultaneously oddest performances of the year.
Based on true events, the story focuses on Olympic Gold Medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his brother, wrestler and trainer David (Mark Ruffalo), whom Mark depends on desperately but also resents in equal measure due to the shadow he’s cast him under. This makes the choice to live and train under John du Pont’s (Steve Carrell, who is simply unrecognizable) care easier, as he believes it will allow him his own personal glory. It’s with great emotional suffering that he comes to realize how much of a mistake he has made. In a move that can only seem punishing, du Pont hires David to come and train his Foxcatcher team, and thus begins the passive-aggressive push and pull between the characters, du Pont and David in particular, over the care of Mark. What du Pont’s motives are for wanting a wrestling team and how poorly it sits with viewers is already half of the groundwork set up for the movie, but as the character study unravels we can’t help but find ourselves more and more enraptured by this tragic story.
Aesthetically, this film is subtly pleasing. We often are shown how lonely Mark is by just the way he’s shot: him alone in his apartment, playing a dated video game in a dimly lit room, alone in one of du Pont’s cabins, huddled up in front of the television, or cross-legged and framed as if he were a child up watching Saturday morning cartoons. It’s the way he shoots the land swallowing du Pont and the team, how such a luxurious home can appear so eerie, how one man looming out of the shadows, fragile looking, can look so utterly threatening. Miller has a keen eye for simple pleasures in film and never goes for gimmicks or overtly lush shots. He can say all he needs to say in the florescent lighting of a wrestling gym, carefully following the brothers warming up to practice, and keeping the lens pointed at the two actors as they demonstrate not just the characters’ wrestling skills, but all we need to know about these two as human beings in a simple, long, and elegant shot.
No matter how gorgeous the cinematography is, and director of photography Greig Fraser deserves some attention for the work he did here, it’s the actors who paint the agonizingly enthralling picture of damaged men and the bonds they break, try to build, and lose due to egos, manipulation and distrust. Much has been said already about Steve Carrell’s transformative performance, and it seems that nothing can derail the accolades he’ll be receiving straight through awards season. He made me uncomfortable, he was unnerving, and he was unlike many characters I’ve seen. He is so caught up in his own delusions, aided by personal staff and his own grandeur, that he’s lost in it. While the prosthetic nose certainly helps in his transformation, it’s much more than a little make-up that does the trick. It’s his alert but weary gait, his dead eyes and his listless way of moving, his charmless grin that sells the character.
Physicality is a big player in the actors’ performances, and you can see why Miller first wanted to cast Tatum after seeing him in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints back in 2005. He gutted me. Visceral misery accompanies every move he makes. His is a devastating character, a lurking, strong figure who is so small, whose physique helps mask his lonely nature. Tatum is a marvel, not quite as showy as Carrel or as warm and good-natured as Ruffalo, but transfixing nonetheless. It’s his performance that moved me the most, that kept me at arm’s length due to how much his character saddened me. He uses his physicality to his advantage as his character hides behind it, pretending to play the part of a man, a self-assured champion, while he’s hiding the scared little boy that he really is.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the two considered as leads, but Ruffalo, as always, is just as good and seems almost effortless as Dave. He has a hard role because it’s he who has to keep the film rooted to the ground, who has to play the heart of the film, and he is also tremendous.
This isn’t a happy film. Foxcatcher is about the lowest of lows that humans can sink to, and how they do so for certain reasons or hopes that get lost on the way to the bottom. Whether it be glory, love, independence, family, so on and so forth, people are always seeking something. Foxcatcher is a twisted and gloomy look at such hopes and dreams that ultimately fall flat.