It almost seems as though ‘Foxcatcher’ is a film destined for pre-dispositioned praise. After all, how can all of the world’s critics not bow down and kneel to the latest effort by director Bennett Miller, who has found great success before with fellow true stories Moneyball and Capote, as he brings us a tale of true crime fueled by arrogance and dueling obsession that features a comedic actor diving headlong into a pain ridden and extravagant character? I know that I certainly went into the theater tonight expecting to be shocked and moved by the sheer madness of it all. However, as I left the theater, all I felt was tired.
The story chronicles the struggles of wrestler Mark Shultz (Channing Tatum), a simple minded yet deeply determined man who spends his days training with his vastly more successful brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), and competing in amateur matches. That is, of course, until famed and ludicrously wealthy wrestling coach John Du Pont (Steve Carell) enlists him to join a team that he sees going all the way to the olympics. It seems like a perfect deal, complete with a nice cabin and $10,000 checks, but Mark does not bet on just how far John is willing to go in subjugating him in order to win.
Foxcatcher desperately wants to break new ground in the sports genre by providing an unconventional look into the lunacy that athletes allow themselves to descend into. In that pursuit the film chooses to not so much focus on the sport of wrestling, and more on the men involved in it that brought themselves into tragedy. All of this sounds wonderfully ambitious and complex on paper, especially considering that Hollywood sports films often fear anything that strays away from the inspirational.
However, from the very first frame, something feels off. As Mark falls deeper into Du Pont’s world, the proceedings have an overwhelming stiffness that never quite leaves. Everything from the performances to the dialogue is so scaled back (intentionally it seems), that we never really get a sense of the intensity of the situation. Sure, we’re treated to a couple of very tense, brutal moments, but for the most part the film just holds it’s breath, seeming bored with itself as it drags along.
None of the performances really get to shine here under the tarp of the drab style. Carell is caked in pounds of makeup and a prosthetic nose, and that is what seems to do most of his acting for him. Du Pont is a man filled jealously, rage, and simultaneous love and admiration for his wrestlers, but Carell really only plays him as a one note creep, so we never are let into the conflicting mental process of Tatum’s character. Speaking of Tatum, this is certainly one of the more impressive turns of his career, particularly in the more physical moments, where he puts his body through more cringe inducing loops than any actor I’ve seen in a long time. However, he’s also really only allowed to play one note as a submissive brute. Surprisingly, it’s Ruffalo who emerges as the most complex character here, as Miller frames him as something of an outsider to Du Pont’s world, so his reactions to things come off as the most realistic and soulful.
It’s ultimately Bennet Miller who fails this story. His insistence on pacing everything as deliberately as possible, while still not really allowing the actors to stretch their respective characters beyond one note, leads to many scenes not only feeling repetitive of previous scenes, but ultimately, pointless. So much of the characters’ internal mechanisms here feel more implied than shown, Miller asking us to just trust what we’re looking at because of the A-list cast he’s assembled, and the admiringly deeply atmospheric cinematography capturing Foxcatcher ranch in a way that forebodes the spoils of the American dream.
With that said, there are moments here that really work, mainly the biggest moments in the story. Miller really steps up his game in these sequences, and they all feel unnerving, especially if they primarily involve Mark. There’s one scene in particular that defies what I thought was humanly possible, and another (that those who already know the story would refer to as the biggest moment) is one of the most deeply disturbing scenes of it’s type ever put on film.
Foxcatcher certainly isn’t a product of a lack of effort. There’s definitely an artistic statement being made here, but I anticipate that critics will appreciate it more than audiences will. Most of it’s two hour and ten minute run time is spent plodding along, treading in the material instead of really savoring it. The actors are more pandered too than allowed to shine, with long pauses to highlight acting choices in sacrifice of these characters actually talking like people, and as such, there is a permanent disconnect with everything going on. If you really want to see a great film about dueling obsession, check out ‘Whiplash’, but if you want to see the film everyone will be talking about, I guess you can do worse…