Always maintaining its reticent attitude with the sense of doom, “Foxcatcher” is quietly examines its stranger-than-fiction story which can be interpreted as a morbid American tragedy of ambition and madness. It demands us considerable patience at times mainly because of its slow pace and glacial mood, and the baffling enigma inside its story is still remained to be a big question mark even when it is over, but its assured direction and three main performances hold our attention as its low-key tension is slowly boiling beneath the screen. Even when its mood becomes a little more optimistic, there are always uneasy and ominous feelings around the screen, and you can sense that something bad will happen sooner or later even if you are not that familiar with a dark real-life story which inspired the movie.
The story begins with Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic wrestling champion who has been stuck in a squalid life for a while since his victory at the 1984 LA Olympics. He may attend the upcoming 1988 Seoul Olympics, but things have not been very good for him. His current residence feels barren and empty except all those trophies and medals he won, and he barely earns a living through motivation speech for elementary school kids, and we also learn that he has always been living under the shadow of his older brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), who is also an Olympic wrestling champion and has far more fame and respect than his little big brother (the Schultz brothers are still only brothers who won both World and Olympic championships).
You can see the pain in Mark’s face when his brother’s name is mentioned during one small scene, but he has no hard feeling on Dave even though his caring brother’s presence always makes him feel inferior. He just wants to be something like Dave, but he is still unsure and confused about what to do with his life, and he only gets more frustrated day by day. Channing Tatum, who has never been so good like this, effectively uses his hefty physicality to convey the inner side of his troubled character; he looks a bit stiff at first with terse mannerism, but then he slowly reveals a big lug still inarticulate and awkward inside his virile body, and we come to see sad, quiet desperation inside Tatum’s surprisingly nuanced performance.
At least, he has Dave, but Mark is not a very social guy compared to his brother who hangs around well with many other guys in his field, and we have a poignant scene when Dave happens to meet his brother at Mark’s usual gym. Not many words are exchanged between them as they have some private moment for their wresting match, but their mingling bodies tell a lot more about their complex relationship than words, and we sense both the bond and the gap between these two brothers as they warm up their bodies and then try to overwhelm each other on the floor.
On one day, Mark gets a surprise call from John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), the heir of one of the wealthiest families in US. As a wrestling enthusiast, du Pont assembles a wrestling team to be trained for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and he wants Mark to join his team which will soon begin training at his big family estate in Pennsylvania. Mark accepts this offer, and he soon arrives at the du Pont estate where everything is ready for du Pont’s Team Foxcatcher, which named after their family farm where his aging mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) has raised thoroughbreds.
When Mark meets du Pont for the first time at du Pont’s mansion, it becomes pretty much clear to us that du Pont is someone you cannot easily deal with. Wearing a big prosthetic nose and heavy make-ups, Steve Carell did a challenging job of playing an aloof, unlikable man who is born to be an eyesore, and his chilly performance always throws uncomfortable vibes into the screen while seldom revealing what is really behind his peculiar appearance which feels increasingly grotesque along the progress of the story.
Like Mark wants to make an impression of his own outside his brother’s reputation, du Pont wants to make an achievement of his own through wresting competition, and it is also implied that he wants to prove himself to his mother, who looks down on her son’s enthusiasm toward ‘low’ sports. He is determined to attain his goal of leaving his own legacy in the American sports history, and he certainly has all the money necessary for that. After all, he is a very rich man, and everything can be bought in his view.
While he cannot recruit Dave, du Pont has Mark instead, and it looks like a nice partnership to both of them at the beginning. Mark is happy to move to a far better place than before, and he also does a good training job on du Pont’s wrestling team while keeping his wealthy employer satisfied. Despite some eccentric behaviors, du Pont begins to regard Mark as his friend although he clearly does not have any normal concept of friendship (he tells Mark later that his only ‘friend’ he has ever known in his life turned out to be paid by his mother). He tries to get along with Mark and other wrestlers, but he still looks as pathetic and ridiculous as before, and his banal speeches for his team feel creepier as the movie observes more of how isolated he is from others. He can fill his office with many expensive antiques he bought, but he is still alone in his world while barely connected with others only through his vast wealth, and he sometimes looks like a petty version of Charles Foster Kane.
The situation becomes darker as Mark is drawn into du Pont’s decadent side (Tatum and Carell have a morbidly humorously scene in which their characters keep saying “Ornithologist, Philatelist, Philanthropist.” as getting high with cocaine during their helicopter ride to Washington D.C.), and that eventually leads to the arrival of Dave and his family at the Foxcatcher farm. Dave tries to make things go right and smoothly, but then Mark hits the bottom as feeling angry and frustrated about being overshadowed by his brother again. Tatum has a couple of intense and painful moments as he bravely hurls himself into his character’s deep despair, and it is rather shame that he is not mentioned often during the ongoing award season unlike his two co-stars.
Meanwhile, Dave finds himself in a difficult circumstance when he must carefully balance himself between his integrity and his boss. Mark Ruffalo, who mainly functions as the sole voice of common sense in the film, gives an engaging performance as a simple decent man with genuine care and dedication, and there is a very good scene in which his character tries not to compromise his principles in front of the camera. Dave certainly does not want any unnecessary trouble with du Pont, but then he finds it pretty difficult to say any sincere good words on his erratic employer, and Ruffalo is fabulous to watch when his character struggles to find anything nice to say about his boss while not lying.
“Foxcatcher” is directed by Bennett Miller, who previously directed “Capote” (2005) and “Moneyball” (2011) and also received the Best Director award for this film at the Cannes Film Festival in last year. He keeps the mood somber and restrained even during a number of wrestling match scenes in the film, and the screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman (he previously collaborated with Miller in “Capote”) stays still and neutral as subtly suggesting the dark currents of emotions churning behind its main characters. The potential of catastrophe slowly grows amid their shifty relationships, and then the catastrophe does happen in the end with a devastating result for everyone.
While it can be regarded as a thinking man’s sports film like “Moneyball”, “Foxcatcher” is closer to “Capote”, which was also a cold, restrained drama inspired by a real-life crime story. However, “Foxcatcher” ultimately fails to go deeper into its characters or the enigma in their troubled relationships, and it feels uneven and unsatisfying especially when its story eventually takes a course to the inevitable point in the end. Despite Carell’s good efforts, du Pont, who died in 2010, remains as an elusive outsider beyond our understanding in the film except his Freudian relationship with his mother and his repressed sexuality, and its notable supporting actors including Sienna Miller and Anthony Michael Hall look more like extras while not having many things to do.
Nevertheless, “Foxcatcher” has some merits including the performances by Carell, Tatum, and Ruffalo. I am still sort of scratching my head on this film even at this point, but I can say that these actors maintain our interest as pushing themselves out of their comfort zone, and I think that is a reason good enough for watching this rather frustratingly ambiguous drama with many unanswered questions hovering around its corners even in the end.