How to summarise “Foxcatcher” in one sentence… Well, I’ll have to paraphrase my immediate reaction to the movie: That was the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever watched. It’s also a unique experience, that’s for sure.
“Foxcatcher” is directed by Bennett Miller and stars Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Steve Carrell and Steve Carrell’s fake nose. The film is about John du Pont (Carrell) and the brothers Mark (Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Ruffalo). DuPont is a rich heir who has set his mind to creating a top-notch wrestling team called Foxcatcher. To do so, he hires Mark Schultz, winner of an Olympic gold medal, to train his team. However, tensions rise between Schultz and du Pont, as both of them do not go into their partnership without baggage.
First of all, this is not a sports movie. It might be centred on a wrestling team, but there is no great fight for redemption waiting at the end and the training is not shown in montage style. “Foxcatcher” deals strictly with personal drama. And there’s a lot of that. The three lead characters (this is clearly an ensemble piece, no matter what the Academy thinks) each have fascinating connections to the other two. Tatum’s Mark desires to rise from the shadow of his brother, while at the same time being overwhelmed by the attentions of du Pont. Ruffalo plays a family man who doesn’t trust du Pont’s generous offer immediately and tries everything to protect his little brother. Du Pont, finally, is looking for the respect he feels he deserves.
The performances are incredible all around. Tatum once again shows us how good he is at portraying, to put it politely, a simple character. Mark Schultz is a lumbering, slow man, not smart and really only very good at one thing, wrestling. Tatum adjusts his posture and stride and gives an impression of constant bewilderment. However, when he gets into his element, it’s an amazing sight, suddenly moving with speed and grace. A great sequence early on shows us a training session with his brother, almost a dance that reveals a lot about both characters and their relationship, without any dialogue. Ruffalo and Tatum apparently trained every evening after shooting, which translates to the screen as they seem completely proficient in what they do. The most surprising performance however has to be Steve Carrell’s. Whatever you think about the rest of his work, if you only saw “Foxcatcher”, you would never believe that Carrell was a comedic actor. Director Bennett Miller stated that he wanted to cast someone inconspicuous for the role, and Carrell is perfect. With the aid of extensive make-up and prosthetics, he creates a chilling character, but also one the audience can somehow understand.
Bennett Miller did not go easy on the actors, which is something he is known for. However, it seems like they were all more than willing to take the challenge, as Miller’s two other movies, “Capote” and “Moneyball” both showed that he can get amazing performances from his actors. So far that has always translated into Oscar nominations and a win for Phillip Seymour-Hoffman. He was instrumental in turning around Jonah Hill’s career, setting him on the path towards more dramatic roles and working with Scorsese. Maybe “Foxcatcher” will have the same effect for Carrell.
However, all the praise aside, one thing is certain. This film is an experience, but it is not a pleasurable one. I’m glad that I saw it, but I doubt that I will ever see it again, because the mood that Miller creates is so intensely uncomfortable and the atmosphere so filled with dread that you are constantly on the edge of your seat. It becomes really hard to sit still, as even scenes that should be rather standard fare turn the tension up to eleven. A huge part of this is Miller’s decision to let the film run with almost no background music. Everyone knows that music has a huge influence on the tone of a scene, but Miller shows us that the absence of music is a stylistic device in itself.
Overall, “Foxcatcher” is a great movie, but if you are not into indie-dramas and mostly look for entertainment in movies, you’d probably better stay away from this one.