Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Foxcatcher opens with the increasingly familiar reminder that its story is based on true events. This time, it carries more heft and provides a sobering reminder of how loneliness and emptiness can push people to rash extremes. As a member of a wealthy empire with aspirations of being a successful wrestling coach, John du Pont comes to terrifying fruition in the form of Steve Carell’s transformative, engrossing lead role. He’s a man marked by a life laid out for him on a silver platter, with a demanding, hard-to-please mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and an estate far too grandiose and enveloping for him to handle. When he wants to put together a professional wrestling team in the hopes that his home becomes an Olympic training grounds, he contacts the Schultz brothers. Mark (Channing Tatum) is the lesser known of the two, one that has missed out on the high of winning a gold medal in the 1980 games, while his older brother David (Mark Ruffalo) is his trainer and the one that gets all of the attention. Mark lives a miserable, impoverished life, and pounces at the opportunity to be the center of focus in du Pont’s batch of champions.
Mark is spoiled with riches and overcome with joy at the idea that he is being appreciated. His father was never around when he was younger, leading to David mostly raising him as they moved from home to home. The two brothers live an intimately personal life, particularly as they are both asked to join John’s force. Yet David cannot leave his family behind, with his wife Nancy (Sienna Miller) wanting to keep the kids grounded despite the opportunity to make a lot more money under du Pont. The desire to be more like David, from both Mark and John, leads to an inferiority complex that increases their bond. There’s a startling dichotomy between their training regimens and just how little John seems to know about wrestling, yet his desire to please his mother knows no bounds. She has always been disappointed with a son that has only earned participation trophies, never had any true friends, and lived a lonely, isolated life. In that regard, John doesn’t ever want to let Mark go, resulting in a battle of three men over power, recognition, and happiness.
Bennett Miller’s film is a triumph of subtlety and nuance. The direction is understated and his most calculated to date; after efforts like Capote and Moneyball attempted to show compassion and remorse for their central characters, Miller examines a man that aspires to be great in Mark and one that has relatively no redeemable qualities in John. As both characters occupy leads and overwhelm each other on screen with their opposites, it allows for the film’s themes to underlie every scene and go unstated for most of the duration. The script from E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman invites the narrative to mostly focus on Mark’s journey from recognition and success in a father figure to a dispassionate, miserable shell of his former self. While Steve Carell’s remarkable lead performance has earned all of the recognition, there’s something to be said about Channing Tatum’s mostly reserved, wholly sympathetic performance in a role that could have fallen into self-parody. Instead, it demonstrates the pursuit of the American Dream and how callously life can act around a person with such aspirations. A scene where Mark speaks at a school in place of David brutally cuts to that core.
Yet the performance that sticks with me the most is Mark Ruffalo’s, an actor that has marked many of his roles over the past decade with humanity and a difficult balancing act. He is a man trying to survive and save his brother when he seems to be falling away; the susceptibility of Mark to be brainwashed almost stems from his own upbringing, and the propaganda that surrounds him brings forth a sense of failure on David’s front as a makeshift father. The second half of the film provides the meat of the drama and shows the endless restraint that Ruffalo uses to make his character work against the two stronger personalities on display. Carell’s du Pont uses his prosthetic nose and grimace to accentuate his underlying malevolence, particularly for those familiar with just how dark the story goes. This is a morbid, relentless film, but not one that sells its premise or purpose all that much. The score only emerges in three or four scenes, being used to further build a Hitchcockian sense of suspense and mistrust. As Foxcatcher builds to its tremendously fulfilling, thematically powerful conclusion and closing shot, the film achieves a level of unnerving, shocking filmmaking that feels necessary and timely. It’s a great film.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)