Warning: This review contains spoilers
If there’s any prominent filmmaker working today that I haven’t quite been able to peg done it’s probably Bennett Miller. That’s not to suggest his film’s are strange or complicated, they’re not, but that it’s kind of been hard to really define what he’s all about as a filmmaker. He certainly makes what you’d call “prestige films” that compete for Oscars, he used to work with Phillip Seymore Hoffman a lot (a fact that, unfortunately, will not inform his career going forward), and… yeah that’s about it. His movies are all very well shot and acted and they all have a certain serious tone to them, but he doesn’t really have any signature shots or stylistic touches that I’ve really been able to identify. Despite this I still feel like he’s an auteur, just not one who’s been overly quick to show his hand. The irony of course is that for all we don’t know about him, we do know that his first film (Capote) was a true crime story and that his second film (Moneyball) was set in the world of sports and for his newest film (Foxcatcher) he’s managed to make a true crime story set in the world of sports. Maybe he’s not such an enigma after all.
Foxcatcher tells the true story of a Greco-Roman wrestler named Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) who has just won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics but still sort of lives in the shadow of his older brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), who also won a gold medal at those Olympics and is thought to be more of a leader figure. As the movie opens, Mark does not seem to be at the height of his prowess. He’s clearly got money problems and his athletic prospects don’t seem to be booming, but much of that changes when he gets an invitation to meet an elusive millionaire named John du Pont (Steve Carrel) who is the heir to the du Pont family’s chemical company and fortune. He also claims to be an avid ornithologist, philanthropist, patriot, and most importantly an enthusiast of wrestling. Du Pont has dreams of building a first-class training facility for the U.S. wrestling team on the grounds of his Foxcatcher estate and he wants the Schultz brothers to be the cornerstone of this effort. Dave is hesitant to uproot his family and move to Pennsylvania, but Mark sees it as a perfect opportunity to get back on top and signs on, but what he doesn’t realize is that he’s about to enter into one of the most psychologically taxing stages of his life and that his time in Foxcatcher will end with a tragedy.
The movie that Foxcatcher reminded me of the most was actually Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard. Both films are about somewhat desperate protagonists who latch onto crazy rich people living in creepy mansions. Like Norma Desmond, John du Pont is a lesson in what happens when wealthy people isolate themselves and are allowed to indulge their every whim by various enablers. The main difference is that Wilder’s film was very specifically about the way movie stardom warps people, this one seems to be commenting on a more general form of affluenza. It’s also a movie about the pitfalls of working in a patronage system, which would seem to be a cogent message in an era where people like Megan Ellison are increasingly in control of film production and political campaigns rest of the approval of the Sheldon Adelsons of the world.
John du Pont is brought to life by Steve Carrel, an actor who walked a line between goofiness and awkward creepiness for seven years on the American version of “The Office,” here he does a seemingly different but secretly similar thing by walking the line between awkward creepiness and goofiness. Much has been written about his use of a prosthetic nose to better imitate his character. It’s a seemingly odd choice given that very few people in the audience are going to know or care what the real John du Pont looked like, but I think this piece of makeup actually served a bigger purpose of giving Carrel a mask of sorts and helping him transform into someone who acts like a funhouse mirror reflection of his usual film persona. Channing Tatum, by contrast, isn’t subverting his usual screen persona (that of the jock who isn’t overburdened with intelligence) so much as he’s humanizing it and making it more believable in a real world setting. He’s clearly done a lot of work to mimic the physicality of an athlete pushed to a physical and psychological limit. My favorite of the three big performances here is actually that of Mark Ruffalo, who once again proves to be a master of the seemingly rare talent of playing guys who are believably down to earth and likable. Beyond that though, he isn’t subverting or leaning into an existing persona and probably gives the most truly transformative performance of the film.
Over the course of “award season” there has been a lot of discussion about who the lead actor of Foxcatcher is. Almost everyone seems to agree that Mark Ruffalo is a supporting actor in the film, but there’s a lot of discussion about whether Carrel should be viewed as the film’s lead or if Tatum is the true lead and Carrel is just a very flashy supporting actor. I for one subscribe to the “Tatum =Lead, Carrel = Supporting” for now, and I don’t bring this up out of a fascination with awards categorization, I bring it up because I think this is actually a key flaw in the film. The movie begins and ends on Tatum’s character and, we’re introduced to du Pont through Tatum’s character, and there are very few scenes in the movie that aren’t explicitly told through the eyes of one of the Schultz brothers. The problem is that, by far, the film’s most interesting character is not Mark Schultz, it’s John du Pont.
The most important arc in the film is du Pont’s descent into madness and we miss important steps in this process because we’re watching it through the eyes of third parties. When Du Pont finally does become violent I wouldn’t say it came completely out of nowhere but it did feel like the movie skipped a couple of steps in the process of explaining how he had come to that point. Looking up the real case I discovered that the events of the film actually seemed to occur over a much longer period of time than it had seemed in the film, and that might sort of help explain why this murderous element abruptly entered into the film, but the movie doesn’t explain this as organically as it could have if it really were focusing in on Du Pont rather than making him something of a cypher to the side. I don’t want to give the impression that the guy doesn’t get a good amount of screentime, I think we are given something of a general idea of what ails him, but by making Mark Schultz the central character the film is never really able to go full-on There Will Be Blood with du Pont’s character and instead settles for being The Last King of Scotland.
There is a lot that Foxcatcher does right. The acting in it is really good and the film is very well shot, edited, and staged. Despite that, I feel like there’s a certain spark missing from the movie and it’s perhaps the same missing spark that kept me from really loving Bennett Miller’s other two films as much as I admired them. The film just never seems to excel at any one thing and I’m not exactly sure why Miller thought this would be such a great story to tell. He makes a big point of establishing Du Pont as an American exceptionalist, but I’m don’t think that really amounts to much. Maybe he’s just focusing on the ways in which wealth warps people’s worldview or at the very least has a certain way of exasperating existing mental illnesses. Or maybe it’s about the lower classes being beholden to the whims of crazy rich bosses. There are definitely ideas to be gleamed from this whole episode, but Miller never really picks one and runs with it. Make no mistake, Foxcatcher is a good movie. It’s better than most of what’s going to ever be playing in any given multi-plex anyway, but as a prestige movie I kind of wanted it to amount to more than it eventually does.
*** out of Four