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Foxcatcher

D: Bennett Miller / 130m

Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd

Brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Tatum, Ruffalo) are both wrestlers who have won gold at the 1984 Olympics. Despite his achievements, Mark lives in the shadow of his brother, and also lives alone while Dave has a wife (Miller) and two children. When Mark is approached by John E. du Pont (Carell), heir to the du Pont family fortune, and offered the opportunity to train at du Pont’s estate as part of a wrestling team called “Team Foxcatcher” (after the estate’s name), he accepts. Du Pont urges Mark to enlist his brother as well, but Dave declines the offer, wanting to keep his family where they are.

Mark begins his training, and in the process he and du Pont become friends. At the 1987 World Wrestling Championships, Mark wins gold. Shortly afterwards, du Pont coaxes Mark into taking cocaine. As Mark begins to take it more and more, du Pont becomes more open about his relationship with his mother (Redgrave), which is adversarial; she believes that wrestling is a “low” sport and doesn’t want him involved with it. But with this new openness comes a gradual change in du Pont’s attitude towards Mark, and when Mark and the team take a morning off from training to watch MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), du Pont is hostile and tells Mark that he’ll enlist Dave any way he can.

Du Pont succeeds and Dave and his family move onto the estate. Mark takes it badly and keeps to himself, pushing everyone away. At the preliminaries for the 1988 Olympics, Mark fares badly and loses his first match. He reacts by trashing his hotel room and going on an eating binge. Dave finds him and gets Mark exercising frantically to remove the excess weight; du Pont tries to help but Dave doesn’t let him. Mark manages to make the Olympic team but by then du Pont has left, having learnt that his mother has died. When Mark returns to du Pont’s estate after finishing in sixth place at the Olympics, he makes the decision to leave. Dave and his family remain, however, Mark’s brother having negotiated a deal with du Pont that allows him to train and still enter competitions.

Eight years pass. Mark becomes a teacher, while Dave continues to live on du Pont’s estate. Du Pont watches an old promotional video he had made that includes a glowing endorsement from Mark. He decides to pay Dave a visit, but what happens when he gets there proves to be as shocking as it is unexpected.

FOXCATCHER

There are several moments in Foxcatcher where the viewer sees John E. du Pont sitting – usually in profile so as to show off the impressive prosthetic nose Carell sports – staring at nothing we can see with his heavy-lidded gaze, and giving the impression of a man wrestling with his own problems. These are metaphorical moments that prove to be literal, and taken as grim foreshadowings of what happened in 1996, are all the more effective. But these moments are also indicative of the problems that beset Foxcatcher‘s script – by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman – from the outset: how do you link someone’s behaviour from one time period to another (even if the gap is less than ten years), and how do you show a causal link between the two?

If the movie never really resolves the issue then it’s not through want of trying. The story of the Schultz brothers and their involvement with John E. du Pont is like a modern day fairy tale, with Mark Schultz as an unwitting Little Red Riding Hood and du Pont in granny clothing as the Wolf. Mark is shown as a little backward, certainly aloof, and so clearly in need of approbation that his decision to accept du Pont’s offer is a foregone conclusion. He’s a man who sees a new comfort zone open up to him, but is so enamoured he doesn’t see the potential downfall of such an arrangement. His trust in du Pont’s philanthropic nature is touching but naive, and by accepting his hospitality he’ll lose what little sense of himself he has. It isn’t even about being impressed; it’s about being acknowledged.

Tatum, in his most challenging role to date, plays Mark like a wounded child, somehow bereft of feeling but yearning to be better at his life. It’s a role you might not consider him as being the first choice for, and while he does come perilously close to Lenny from Of Mice and Men territory at times, he reins in that impulse to provide a carefully considered and subtle portrayal of a man struggling to deal with newfound impulses and a relationship that deforms from friendship into abuse. His hurt features, like those of a child told off for something but not knowing what it is he’s actually done, are often heart-rending because of how confused Mark is feeling.

As du Pont, Carell is excellent, portraying him with a detachment that makes his attempts at friendship doomed to failure at every turn. He can impress, and he can persuade, and he can maintain a polite façade, but inside he’s empty, unable to connect to other people in a way that’s meaningful or rewarding. He’s on the outside looking in, but with no clear desire to go inside; it’s as if he purposely keeps himself apart from people so as not to have to deal with such messy problems as feelings and emotions. Carell holds all that in but you can see it in his eyes, the inability to empathise with other people, even his mother, and most importantly, the pain it causes him (even if he would never admit it). It’s a virtuoso performance, restrained, drained of surface emotion and terrifying.

There is equally fine work from Ruffalo as Dave. He’s the normal guy, the guy with a wife and two kids and a steady job. It’s not surprising that du Pont doesn’t understand him, or that he can’t reconcile his feelings about him. Ruffalo, sporting a receding hairline that surprisingly suits him, is the movie’s most relatable character, and he uses Dave’s quietness and good sense as a counterweight to the instability shown by Mark and du Pont. It’s a confident, almost effortless performance, and one that acts as a touchstone for the audience; he’s a welcome relief from the psychodrama going on elsewhere.

It’s a good thing that the performances are so good, because otherwise Foxcatcher would play out at a pace even more stately than it does already. At times it’s a painfully slow movie to watch, with Miller adopting a painstaking, but also despair-inducing approach to scenes that numbs the mind and has the viewer wishing he’d get a move on. The more measured the scene, the more likely it is to feel twice as long as it really is, and with the script barely moving out of first gear on most occasions, Miller seems unable to inject any sense of urgency into things (with the exception of Mark’s need to rapidly lose weight at the preliminaries – then it’s practically a thriller by comparison with the rest of the movie). It may well be a deliberate choice on Miller’s part, but it hurts the movie in ways that will leave some viewers cold.

Rating: 8/10 – a rewarding movie ultimately, Foxcatcher risks a lot in its (true) tale of a multimillionaire and a wrestler and their unlikely relationship; hard-going, but with a trio of knockout performances, the movie serves as a timely reminder that gift horses are not always what they seem.