Foxcatcher, for which Bennett Miller somewhat surprisingly snagged best director award at the 2014 Cannes film festival, is a lugubrious retelling of a bleak true story. It’s about 80s wrestling, but you’ll find no traces of Hulk Hogan, Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat or Koko B. Ware at this shindig. Instead, the menu consists of big, slick men shambling around in sweaty gyms, grunting sadly at each other; super-heavy themes (lots and lots of themes) about AMERICA; and a tone so molasses-thick with doom that it sometimes verges on parody – you’ll see what I mean when Vanessa Redgrave’s devilish matriarch wheels onto the scene. Oh, and there’s Steve Carell playing Michael Scott’s evil twin with a massive hooter, all the better for snorting up charlie while whizzing around in his fancy helicopter.
Actually, Carell plays billionaire oddball and wrestling enthusiast John du Pont, who sees himself as the man to revive the fortunes of wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) – a sad lump reduced to forlornly hoovering up microwave ramen in the long wake of success at the 1984 Olympics. Du Pont invites Schultz to his gargantuan country estate, so he can prepare for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Schultz acquiesces, and attempts, alongside du Pont, to entice his older brother, gruff family man Dave (Mark Ruffalo) to join. It’s safe to say that things don’t pan out so well.
Though the real-life du Pont was adjudged to have been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, Miller opts to leave the reasons for his disturbed mental state ambiguous here. Accordingly, du Pont becomes something of a conduit through which Miller (and screenwriters Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye) can grandly, but nebulously, exemplify and critique a string of American right-wing values, from gun control (or the lack of it) to the disastrous psychological and corporeal effects of unfettered free market capitalism. You can always see where the filmmakers are coming from, and perhaps that’s the problem. A more complex work might’ve attempted to delve into du Pont’s mind more, make him less of a walking symbol of the American Terrible.
That said, Foxcatcher is so dark and funereal, its mood so rigorously sustained by Miller in terms of crisp composition and dank colour, that it can’t help but ultimately assume a stately power. It’s notable that the one scene depicting everyday normality – a sequence set in a cluttered hotel room with Dave, his wife and their noisy kids – stands out as an aberration; the spectacle is certainly too vulgar for the disgusted du Pont, through whose jaundiced eyes we are trained to view the film for the most part (though an oddly trifurcated structure robs it of some dramatic force).
Yet Foxcatcher is mostly commendable as an actors’ showcase. Even if Carell really is channeling the dark side of the aforementioned Michael Scott (socially maladroit, delusions of grandeur), he does a suitably chilling, disciplined job, peering down his prosthetic nose and issuing petulant commands in an affected, adenoidal whinny. Tatum, too, is superb as the emotionally tender lug; comparisons with Robert De Niro in Raging Bull might be over-egging the pudding, but his explosions of violence and self-harm are genuinely bracing, and even more shocking given that the actor has the face of a confused 12-year-old boy. And then there’s Ruffalo – easily one of the best, and most sadly underrated actors of the last two decades – who gives the film its heart. He gets the best scene: an excruciating, reluctant filmed interview in which he's forced to extol the virtues of his demented benefactor. It’s a sly, layered moment which speaks to the film’s ideas of power, compromise and threatened masculinity without walloping you over the head with them. If only there were a few more like it...
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