Introduction

Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher
  • Country of production: USA
  • Year: 2014
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: Bennett Miller
  • Running time: 129 minutes
 

Foxcatcher is a dark and engrossing drama based on real events. It depicts the ill-fated relationship between troubled multi-millionaire John du Pont (STEVE CARELL) and US wrestling champions Mark Schultz (CHANNING TATUM) and his brother Dave (MARK RUFFALO) after he entices them to move to his country estate to train for the 1988 Olympic Games. This ‘insidiously gripping’ psychological thriller is anchored by ‘three supremely accomplished  performances’ (Justin Chang, Variety) and was nominated for Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

The Schultz brothers, who won gold medals at the 1984 Olympics, are close to each other. But whereas Dave is a gregarious family man married to Nancy (SIENNA MILLER), the quieter Mark is awkward and directionless, wallowing in those fast-fading glories. We see him giving a talk at a school for a fee of $20 and living on instant noodles in his drab flat.

John du Pont lures Mark to his state of the art training facilities at the family’s ‘Foxcatcher’ estate in Pennsylvania with the bait of reclaiming Olympic glory and perhaps also escaping his brother’s shadow.

Du Pont’s desire to foster Olympic glory and his speeches about restoring American honour mask the crippling insecurity of a weak man. Unable to match his ancestors’ achievements in building a dynasty based on the manufacture of gunpowder, he scrabbles to gain the respect of his forbidding, patrician mother (VANESSA REDGRAVE).

His delusion andf self-aggrandisement are sometimes very comical although his manipulation of Mark makes for uncomfortable viewing. He is capricious and one ‘senses something unhealthy, even sinister, about him’. As du Pont comes to realise that he can’t dominate the brothers when they are re-united the entire scenario has the ‘quiet dread of a ticking time bomb’ (Justin Chang, Variety).

Impeccably crafted, Foxcatcher won Oscar-nominated director BENNETT MILLER (Capote, Moneyball) the Cannes Film Festival award for Best Director.

The film weaves in appearances by real-life wrestlers, including a cameo at a weigh-in by Mark Schultz himself, although he has since criticised his depiction in the film.

Re-view

Foxcatcher

TEAM U.S.A.

There are great American movies, and then there are great movies that take America as their very subject, from Greed and Citizen Kane to There Will Be Blood and The Social Network. Foxcatcher has that same, soaring ambition, and it can hold its own in that august company.

(Scott Foundas, Variety)

Like Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood, which featured in Bennett Miller’s earlier film Capote (2005), Foxcatcher provides a window on the American condition through the dissection of a real-life crime. Inherited wealth; usurping of sporting achievement and obsession with guns are all in the frame. Miller unfurls what Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times calls an ‘intentionally disturbing film that draws us into a maelstrom of desperate emotions. It holds up a dark mirror to the American dream and does not like what it sees.’

This is excrutiatingly personified by du Pont in his self-styling as “Eagle, or Golden Eagle, or John” and his inane ramblings about restoring American greatness.

Du Pont is ‘a lonely, prickly and arrogant plutocrat who resembles a middle-aged spoilt child’ and Carell plays him as a deeply damaged human being, ‘with a superb feel for the role's absurdity and anguish, but stopping short of caricature’ (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian). His performance is ‘magnificently odd... a wonderful portrayal of delusion and vanity and, as the story progresses, of something more troubling’ (Jonathan Romney, Film Comment).

Carell’s performance is notable not only as a far cry from the persona developed in mainstream comedies Anchorman (2004) and TV’s The Office (2005-13),but for its masterful physicality. Amy Nicholson of LA Weekly remarked that ‘his eyes seem smaller and more sunken, his nose has doubled to an imperious beak, and his skin is marred with wrinkles and liver spots. He walks in small, mincing steps and speaks in a gray monotone - the voice of a man who has never had to yell to get what he wants.’ His character’s unfamiliarity with the word ‘no’ is epitomised by a perfectly timed grunt of bewilderment when Mark tells him, “You can’t buy Dave”.

Sparring partners

Miller has captured brilliantly the loving yet fraught relationship between the two brothers. For Peter Bradshaw, writing in The Guardian, Tatum and Ruffalo ‘have outdone themselves. These actors give what seems to me the most compelling portrayal of brothers since Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in Scorsese’s Raging Bull’.

‘Ruffalo is solid and tender, putting some warm new inflections on the gentle giant routine that he’s been perfecting all these years’, as Jonathan Romney wrote in Film Comment. While for Tatum, ‘it’s the hardest thing in the world to give life to a character that’s so much about inarticulacy, interiority and repression, but the subtle, sometimes enigmatic changes that Mark goes through make this a very nuanced performance’.

Miller keeps emotion suppressed, working with a screenplay by E. Max Frye (Something Wild) and Dan Futterman (Capote), of which entire swathes are wordless. He directs ‘with silences in big empty spaces that capture du Pont’s abstracted, rarefied life’ (Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post). When du Pont first walks on screen, Miller withholds the expected close-up that would let us get to know him, as Robbie Collin remarked in The Daily Telegraph. ‘Instead, for a couple of minutes, he leaves him lingering in the middle distance, weird, unfathomable and not recognisably warm-blooded.’

Cinematographer Greig Fraser ‘gives the impeccably composed imagery a blue-toned chilliness and shoots the actors in such a way that they all have the same sickly pallor. You can feel depravity eating away at the characters’ souls’ (Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York).

Gripping

Miller’s develops his story carefully, with not ‘an ounce of the proverbial narrative fat... the picture builds a slow-motion tragedy of astounding psychological acuity and narrative tension’ (Justin Chang, Variety).

That said, the events and timeline appear misleading. It’s barely apparent that eight years pass between Mark’s departure from Foxcatcher Farm in 1988 and the film’s close and the viewer gains little insight into du Pont’s psychological deterioration in that time. While the finale is gut-wrenchingly tense and shocking, it feels like a coda as much as a climax.

Grappling with weighty themes

Foxcatcher has been described as ‘a film to be considered alongside David Fincher’s The Social Network and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master as a swirling smoke-black parable of modern America’ (Robbie Collin, The Daily Telegraph). If anything, Foxcatcher’s message is supported by the fact that it was itself produced by an heiress (Megan Ellison, daughter of the co-founder and CEO of Oracle), who has been responsible for a number of other quality pictures too, including The Master (2012), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Her (2013) and American Hustle (2013).

A few critics, such as Jonathan Romney in Film Comment, thought that while ‘this is a rich, serious film... you sense a rather dogged determination to be a Great American Film, not least in its earnest questioning of some of the totems of Americanness’. This is apparent in the film opening with Mark telling schoolchildren “I’m here to talk about America” and closing to chants of “U.S.A.”, as Anthony Lane pointed out in The New Yorker.

Actually its ambition is ostensibly more limited in that it is first and foremost a film about sport, although that perspective does nonetheless cast a more general light. ‘Foxcatcher is a superb, satiric antithesis of a Hollywood underdog sports movie... The usual ethos of sports movies is meritocratic – you can be all you can be on the football field or the running track. That is not what emerges from Foxcatcher, which is far bleaker and crueller about modern America.’ (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian).

 
Pro-files

Foxcatcher

 
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Foxcatcher

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