There’s a part of me that wishes that Bennett Miller would direct a film about Mark Schultz’s Twitter rampage over his direction of ‘Foxcatcher’, because I have a feeling that that film would be more entertaining than this one was. That isn’t to say it would be a better film, because ‘entertaining’ has very little to do with quality, but there is something almost stagnant about ‘Foxcatcher’ that makes it hard to fully invest in. Some have called this glacial, but I was rooting for this because slow and brooding and cold and detached are qualities that I’m not always turned off by, when they serve the purpose of the film, and Bennett Miller has infused these qualities into his last two films (mostly in ‘Capote’), and I was a big fan of both.
This was hard to watch.
The story behind ‘Foxcatcher’ is a truly intriguing one. Since the film’s release, despite the critical reception and initial adoration from the film’s subject, Mark Schultz, Schultz turned to accusing the film of being largely fabricated and misleading. How much of his ranting and accusations I actually believe is debatable and fluctuates from day to day, since so does his attitude towards the film itself. But, I’m not unaware that film often fabricates for dramatic effect, and so I know that this is not ‘the whole truth’ but more an interpretation of the truth.
This doesn’t bother me.
The story told is that of the Schultz brothers, Mark and Dave, who are wrestlers at different ends of the spectrum. Dave is respected and lauded, a family man who loves what he does but knows that place in which it should all be put. Mark is alone and feeling defeated, a man who stumbles along in the shadow of his more charming brother, who lives his life in a lonely stumble towards a greatness he wishes to achieve but sees as something sorely out of reach. The pair shares a bond that keeps them within arm’s reach but that bond isn’t enough to keep them securely close. Then a strange presence asserts itself into their lives in the form of John du Pont, an eccentric millionaire who is struggling with his own demons (an unsupportive and disapproving mother) and sees a chance to achieve his own idea of greatness through the use of these brothers.
Initially reaching out to Mark, and offering him the chance of a lifetime (a nice paycheck and full use of his gym with the power to handpick is own training team), du Pont claims to be only interested in seeing USA take the Gold in the 1988 Olympics, but below the surface brims a madness that festers with each passing day.
Unfortunately, the madness is lost in translation, at least for me.
There are themes painted within the fabric of this story that feel achingly universal and, if manipulated in the right manner, could have really taken this to another level of storytelling, but I found a large facet of this film to be somewhat dead, which only caused the concentrated and intentional ‘cold’ tone of the film to become increasingly overwhelming and distracting.
My problem was Steve Carell.
Carell took a risk. He took a plum role, that of an eccentric and manipulative and borderline (is it really borderline?) crazy man and played him VERY low-key. This is a character that could have easily been given a very hammy and elaborate portrayal, which would have been a disaster of sorts as well, but it is also a character that was ripe for just the right amount of pathos under the surface to bring him to screaming life and create a man who haunts our dreams. Carell is just there. He raises his head at an awkward angle and talks around that beak of a fake nose with the slow drawl of a mentally challenged person and peers out of his dead-eyes with the look of an actor trying desperately to prove that he can handle this. Sadly, he couldn’t handle it, and because of that this man becomes less of a haunting figure and more of a stain on a film that could have made a richer impact had the climax felt more authentic within the fabric of the story itself. When du Pont snaps and actually shoots Dave, it feels anticlimactic despite being such a harrowing moment. Carell fails to really portray much of anything, other than a checklist of ‘trying to act serious’. Carell has handled serious before, but this was out of his depth.
It doesn’t help that both Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are so organic in their portrayal of the Schultz brothers that every time they share the screen with Carell, his flawed performance takes center stage. Together they are remarkable, their weight shifting in ways that show a true commitment to their characters, a true understanding of the ‘dance’ they must dance in order to portray these men with such believable accuracy. Separate, they are just as good. Ruffalo has such natural charm that his subtle turn comes to life with such urgency, such naturalism. You believe him every step of the way. He also has the very best scene in the film, that interview scene, which says so much; SO MUCH! Tatum lumbers around with a performance that, on the outset seems very one-note, and yet there is something extremely grounded behind those eyes, unlike Carell. You can see the ache, the heartbreak that rests behind the broken man who just wants something more. The hotel scene, after he loses his first match, is a remarkable moment of an actor actually filling in all the gaps of a person’s every single thought.
This man, this ape, this machine; such crushingly brutal honesty in his desperation to be better than he is.
Bennett Miller directs ‘Foxcatcher’ with a specific tone in mind, and it’s clear from the first few sequences. The fog completely suffocates the scenery and develops a character all its own by becoming this weighty presence that lingers over every scene. The problem is that the haunting nature of the cinematography and score and lingering shots (it’s so tragically beautiful to watch) is interrupted by a performance that should have playing into the atmosphere and given it heft, but instead he drops it and allows Miller to do all the work, and he simply can’t carry this all the way on his own. Because of this, the film feels more stagnant and lifeless than chilling and haunting.
The reception of ‘Foxcatcher’ has been somewhat divisive. I truly expected to be a champion of this film, based solely on my reaction to the story itself and to my reaction towards Miller’s past work, but sadly I’m not in this film’s corner.