Review: Foxcatcher (2014)

Various angles of the American dream, based on true events

It is unfortunate when one walks into a cinema with an idea, however rough it may be, of what is about to unfold for the next few hours. Falling into this trap had become a common occurrence for me when hearing upon a true story so engaging, and the delayed release of Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher had spit out so many articles surrounding the absorbingly bizarre tale that I was left with no choice. Fortuitously, it didn’t affect my experience in the slightest as I was instantly immersed in the wintry and detached atmosphere that flooded the screen ahead of me from the opening scene. Foxcatcher is a story of severe isolation and the desperate attempts on behalf of certain characters to mask these deep and hollow holes that have warped their lives.

Much has been made of Steve Carell’s performance as John Du Pont due to the utter transformation the actor undertook, not only in appearance, but also specific mannerisms that seems to have taken many by surprise, due to this being the same man that for years had become identified for the most part for his continuous presence in comedy. There were early low-key signs in Carell’s career that he could competently suit up for the role of Du Pont, with his brilliant portrayal as Frank Ginsberg, the affably suicidal uncle in the breakout indie of 2006, Little Miss Sunshine. Nevertheless, his unique comic touch works to his advantage as Du Pont, allowing the absurdity of the character to be rendered on screen to a near flawless level, much like Robin Williams who altered his on-screen persona to such a great extent from the silly comedy legend for which the public were so familiar with, into the disturbing and obsessive photograph developer in One Hour Photo. Carell personifies John Du Pont as a man detached from society, with characteristics resembling a wealthy yet also awfully immature child that strives to prove his worth to his icy, dissatisfied mother (executed magnificently by Vanessa Redgrave).

This comes in the form of his atypical involvement in the sport of professional wrestling, calling upon Olympic gold medallist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to live and train at his home where he had developed a wrestling facility of the highest order, an opportunity Mark finds too difficult to turn down after living for years in his older brother Dave’s (Mark Ruffalo) shadow as the distant introverted sibling. The relationship between the brothers is emphasised in a unique fashion early in the film, with a sequence where they train together, demonstrating through physical combat a unique sense of communication, compensating for the lack of verbal exchange in spite of their clear bond.

Du Pont doesn’t only seek to gain a pastime out of the sport, but also is desperate for people to look up to him and value his existence and input in their lives, which is clear when at one point he reminds the wrestlers of his status and influence in their budding careers, in a manner that touches upon a state of delusion: ‘Coach is the father. Coach is a mentor. Coach has great power on athlete’s life.’ His erratic behaviour begins to gradually escalate, alarming those around him with extreme antics that stem from concealed rage and bitterness, ultimately leading to devastating consequences. The lion’s share of the picture acts as a measured and intensely heavy build-up towards a rapid, yet also overwhelming climax, in that although the ending is unknown and may come as a slight shock, it is evident during the course of experiencing Foxcatcher, one can physically feel that something bad will undoubtedly materialise. This is not only a testament to its storyline, but also its superb cinematography (performed by Zero Dark Thirty’s Greig Fraser), displaying the secluded and somewhat depressive Pennsylvanian backdrop with its doggedly still shots that are dominated by weak colours, dragging the pace down even further.

It is vital to overlook recent assertions that Foxcatcher revolves around a strained sexual relationship between Mark Schultz and Du Pont, due to its triviality within the scope of this narrative. Miller’s film is fundamentally also about power (and in Du Pont’s case a distorted conception of it) visible in differing aspects of detail. This is shown by presenting the Schultz brothers’ contrasting position in society in comparison to John Du Pont and how this disturbs the rapport between the two parties. Together with the fact that John recognises Mark to be rather neglected and therefore more accessible than Dave to appeal to, later capitalising on this perceived weakness in a bid to dominate Mark’s wrestling career.

Ruffalo is excellent as the warm and attentive Dave, unsettling the multilateral dynamic that is initially monopolised by the lonely and offbeat link between Du Pont and Mark. Scenes involving the three men together prove to be highlights, illustrating a remarkable power struggle between John’s efforts to be noticed and the brothers’ reluctance in focusing upon Du Pont’s behaviour and instead focusing their energy in utilising the favourable circumstances that they find themselves in.

Miller assembles an almost impotent atmosphere through his astute direction, constructing a sense of relentless anxiety, with a strained soundtrack aiding to his cause in generating a dispirited aura throughout the estate. Like his previous feature Moneyball, Foxcatcher explores the complications that emerge from the stress of wealth and superiority within the realms of professional sport. However, the similarity ends rather abruptly in the manner that the film is intrinsically a despondent and pitiful tale. I’m just thankful and to some degree relieved that it was recounted in such an enchanting fashion.

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