Foxcatcher is based on the true life crime story involving multi-millionaire John Dupont and his desire to build an Olympic wrestling team by hiring championship wrestling brothers Mark and David Schultz. The details of the crime itself are out there for you, even in other reviews—but I want to avoid specifics. Just know Dupont (Steve Carell) invites first Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to his palatial estate to talk him into forming a team worthy of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Later, DuPont brings in Mark’s older brother David (Mark Ruffalo) to assist, which only causes tension between the brothers and eventually Dupont himself.
We meet Mark Schultz (Tatum) living a ridiculously simple and lonely life despite being an Olympic champion. If anything, Foxcatcher is mesmerizing as it quietly sets up and establishes Tatum’s character. We watch him languidly talk with school kids, eat lunch and return to a home that’s sterile and still. His brother David (Ruffalo) is more social and engaging and when we meet him, he’s entertaining a group of university big-wigs talking over his future. When the brothers practice, its monstrously athletic as it is affectionate. They’re close—and a little blood spilled between brothers is de rigueur, I suppose.
I only vaguely remember reading the account of John DuPont and the Schultz brothers in some Rolling Stone article years ago, with all the details having left me by the time I saw this new film from Bennett Miller. Miller is a filmmaker who is about to get on my list of people who could draw me to a film just because their name is on it. Capote was stellar. I’m not much of a sports person with baseball furthest down on the list of sports I care nothing about, yet I found Moneyball strangely hypnotic; with its natural dialogue and easy going nature. Admittedly its a film where not much happens, but its also a film I like and respect despite of its meditative rhythms.
Similarly, Foxcatcher has its own pulse and rhythm which will either bore you or pull you further within. It feels like a horror film—without shadows and fanged animals howling in the dark. To not know (or recall) where the story is going, there emerges a sense of dread. Watching the film, with its scant music cues, is akin to holding one’s breath. It made me think of how in poetry, the white space, the unused space around the words, is as important as the poem itself. Here, it often feels like Miller employs a poetic technique. There’s what’s said, but equally important is what’s not said. There’s the dialogue we hear, and there are exchanges where Miller purposefully keeps us out of earshot.
Foxcatcher isn’t an easy sell, though. Its long, which with its easy going nature, could make some audiences fidgety. There are few female roles. Vanessa Redgrave phones in a gorgeous portrayal of the world’s most non-affectionate mother. And David’s character has a wife, yet beyond being the mom in the background, she’s forgettable. Some people could consider Steve Carell’s nose to a distracting supporting character. But truthfully, a couple of minutes in and Carell vanishes. A couple of times I forgot I was watching Steve Carell and in one random long shot, my brain thought it was Ben Stiller. His performance is beautifully tailored; from how his DuPont stands or walks or sits, to how he carefully doles out his words, as if spooning cream onto a fancy dessert. He’s a wealthy version of Dracula; unreadable as far as what he’s truly thinking. And more so than Tatum’s David Schultz character, desperately lonesome. DuPont has the money to buy military weaponry as if it were a souvenir tchotchke, but how much does family, friends or even respect cost?
The pulse running beneath Foxcatcher’s surface is loneliness. Tatum’s turn as David Schultz is probably the strongest, most concentrated role in Tatum’s career. Maybe he is dismissable as a pretty boy cursed to toggle between romantic comedies and action films. But you won’t get a raised eyebrow from me once he pulls a Oscar nomination for his work here. He is like a overgrown adolescent; a block of muscle, clumsy and lacking confidence everywhere except in the ring. He is spellbinding to watch.
Though Foxcatcher will get a lot of attention for featuring a humorless Carell and his prosthetic nose, and Tatum easily carrying the film, when I think of the film my mind veers towards Mark Ruffalo. If Dupont and Mark Schultz are the film’s most showiest roles, Ruffalo’s big brother David undercuts them both with a natural performance that doesn’t feel like acting. Between the three leads, his is the role that seems more grounded and normal. He is doing the high wire act suspended between Carell and Tatum and his doesn’t seem like ‘acting’ at all. Between the three, his character is the one with a family and a sense of normalcy. Watch him especially when a DuPont hired documentarian walks Ruffalo’s character through an on-camera interview. Sometimes a performer can get an award simply for nailing one pivotal scene, and Ruffalo nails it to the wall.
There are three major performances suspending Foxcatcher and it’s a shame the film can’t get an award fair enough to acknowledge all three actors evenly. The team work shown here makes this film an essential for students of acting. Its not a film that will draw and keep every audience. You’ll feel the glacial running time if you know where the story is going or are too distracted by Carell’s nose and drowsy with wealth performance. And the wrestling, though there’s much of it, doesn’t feel as homoerotic as the real thing. Neither are the matches shot with with a sense of hightened drama or appeal. Its doubtful anyone will run from this film to buy singlets. Foxcatcher is a daytime horror film dressed as a sports movie. Its an unhurried character study that has the added benefit of being true.