Oscar bait season trundles on in Ireland, long past the point when the actual nominees are announced for the biog gongs. After last week’s Birdman, another that has been making serious waves is Foxcatcher, with Channing Tatum and Steve Carell stepping out of their usual comedic or semi-serious gigs to take part, with Mark Ruffalo, in something considerably darker. Foxcatcher has been catching all kinds of attention, and not just because of Carell’s nose, amazingly. Is this warped true story the real deal, or just more grist for the Oscar mill?
Mark Schultz (Tatum) prepares for the 1988 Olympics hoping to repeat his previous success and get out of the shadow of his more illustrious brother Dave (Ruffalo). When reclusive and strange billionaire John du Pont (Carell) contacts him, offering money, state of the art training facilities, support, and every chance of success, Mark jumps at the chance, but soon becomes dragged into a world of delusion, jealousy and obsessive behaviour.
Foxcatcher is a bleak, bleak film, one of the most sombre and downhearted that I have watched in a while. Everything about it seems designed to depress, to cast down and to make you want to cry from the hopelessness of it all. But at the heart of all that is still a good film: it’s just that it’s not for those of light heart. This is a film about mental instability, all of the twisted ways it can present itself, and how it can drag people down dark paths with endings that can spell doom. The resulting journey can be seen as a bit long winded, and loses the run of itself in regards one of its three major characters, but it is still a journey worth witnessing.
It’s a character driven piece, through the journeys and interactions of the three leads. It’s a period film, a look at some of the grungier aspects of 1980’s America, at a time when the Cold War was winding down and the country seemed to be in a bit of a moral list. And it’s an unlikely sports film, about that fascinating competition that is Olympic-style wrestling, which receives as enthralling a depiction as can be expected. In all three of these aspects, I think it is fair to say that Foxcatcher is a winner. And all of that is down to the warped and fuzzy three sided tale crafted through this intensely gripping look at Mark Schultz, Dave Schultz, and John du Pont.
The film sets itself up as a based around of trinity of characters in this wrestling world. Tatum’s Mark Schultz is nominally the main player for most of proceedings, and his journey is a stark one. Foxcatcher expertly portrays the manner in which Mark finds himself in the shadow of his more respected brother early on, as the younger Schultz collects a meagre paycheck as a stand-in for his sibling and goes home to a cold looking apartment. In the meanwhile, his brother has a proper home, a loving wife, a family. In Mark’s demeanour and movements, his frequently silent emoting, there is a clear and palpable desperation.
That manifests itself in different ways, none more effective than an early wrestling practise with his brother. A frustrated Mark lashes out and draws blood: later, he can only sit in childish silence as his brother patiently overlooks this act of immature petulance. Mark is so, so desperate to escape this existence, that the arrival of du Pont into the picture is like miraculous salvation.
Du Pont takes over the narrative slowly, in what I am sure was a deliberately insidious fashion. Foxcatcher makes sure that in the first half of the film the similarities between du Pont and Mark are made clear: both men find themselves in the shadows of older relatives, both men feel trapped in their unappealing existence, both men are desperate for a release. But most importantly, both men are alone, and are really looking for a friend. They find a friendship in each other, and for a time Foxcatcher appears to be progressing like any other boiler plate sports movie.
The problem is that Mark and du Pont are patently unsuited to each other, beyond the initial euphoria of their pairing. Du Pont’s character journey is driven by a level of delusion and megalomania that actually shocks you, but it only comes out slowly. At the beginning it’s easy to see du Pont as a man with genuinely positive motives. Sure he’s a bit awkward and socially underdeveloped, but his heart appears to be in the right place. When he talks about how his only friend when he was growing up was a boy paid by his mother, we can see the man who just wants to be loved, and doesn’t know quite how to get that love properly.
From there, Foxcatcher goes firmly down the darker road. Further discussion will have to come below, but suffice to say that du Pont’s continually repressive and mania-driven actions quickly show him as less of a guardian angel and more of wolf in sheep’s clothing. Mark, tied indelibly to du Pont and “Team Foxcatcher”, finds himself shackled to a monster. The resulting plot line is shockingly downhearted and, at times, frustratingly obtuse: Director Bennet Miller has decided to leave du Pont as an enigma in his story, a man who we never really get definitive closure on. We can infer and speculate on what really drove him, especially in the darkest of Foxcatcher’s moments, but the film, regretfully, will not posit a firm answer itself, perhaps out of fear that any decision might take away from the allure of the Foxcatcher mystery.
That’s really the only major fault I can find with the character driven elements of Foxcatcher though. Through every awkward moment, every humiliating step, even slow bit of descent into the pit of mental agony, Foxcatcher makes sure that its trinity propels the narrative forward, even as the whole experience leaves the audience squirming in their seats. Ruffalo’s Dave is almost like an audience surrogate in some ways, the one sane man looking in from outside the asylum, before he is unwillingly dragged inside. Foxcatcher’s trinity take on the opposing roles, in the last act, as battlers over the soul of Mark. Tatum’s character never forgets his highest aim of eclipsing his brother, but both du Pont and Dave want to help him with that task: the problem is that their respective methods are alarmingly incompatible.
This angle is there on a personal level as well of course: The brotherly relationship is skilfully portrayed in Foxcatcher, right from that early wrestling scene, and one is never in any doubt of the bond drawn between Mark and Dave, even if their words might not indicate a strong one. Du Pont wants a friend and a brother too, but in so many ways he only wants these things like he wants trophies: as baubles to be shown off, and perhaps discarded as quickly as they were attained.
The tragedy cannot be avoided: Foxcatcher skilfully builds up a knife edge of tension from its earliest moments, as it becomes ever more obvious that the deeper problems of its characters, especially du Pont, will have to find some kind of release. That makes the film especially bleak: at no point can a happy ending be seen on the horizon, for anybody involved. The higher point of the film remains about the tremendous destructive power of self-delusion, and poor mental health is a sword of Damocles, poised to rend the heart and soul of those suffering from it.
Foxcatcher attempts to be an acting tour de force, in true Oscar bait fashion. No one here is putting in a terrible shift, even if the film is utterly dominated by the main trio, with only Vanessa Redgrave as du Pont’s suffocatingly disapproving mother getting any kind of a look in when it comes to the supporting cast. It’s important to recognise the limitations. Carell is nearly indistinguishable under the extensive make-up, and his performance seems deliberately one-note: Du Pont never raises his voice, never expresses much of an emotional range beyond quiet sanctimony and pathetic pseudo-pleas for emotional closeness. That’s not to say that it’s bad, it just doesn’t strike me as mesmerising, or even very difficult to pull off.
Tatum and Ruffalo are far more impressive. Tatum is one of those actors whose star has been deservedly rising at a steady pace, and Foxcatcher is the current pinnacle of his career, with a taut, unnervingly restrained performance as the depressed and frustrated Mark. Tatum really makes you feel that in Mark, how the wrestler can’t find a way out and can’t even properly enunciate how he feels, save for some really engaging moments of passion unleashed. Ruffalo, for his part, is this strangely unnerving point of normalcy amid the craziness, the antithesis to du Pont’s poisonous personality. His David see’s the pain that Mark is going through and tries to get him through it the only way that he knows how, and later proves an equal to du Pont’s creepily dominating personality. Dave is the straitght man here, and Ruffalo plays him extremely well.
On the visual front, Foxcatcher matches its bleak story with a bleak landscape and colour palette. The film tells its tale through a lens filled with grey and dark blue, a haze frequently infecting what we can see, such as when Mark arrives at Foxcatcher, like the mental fog is becoming tangible on our screens. The vast majority of scenes are the main trio in twos paring off, and Miller does well in allowing the cast the option to show off. There is decent juxtaposition with the surrounds at times though, like the Valley Forge around Foxcatcher Farms – a place whose historical power seeps into du Pont’s increasingly addled brain – or how the isolated Mark finds himself sharing moments alone with the dead bird collection of his sponsor more and more as time goes on, joining them as just another trophy to be displayed and then forgotten. The wrestling scenes also deserve some note: Foxcatcher never takes time to outline the ins and outs of the sport in any great detail, but the shooting of the sport in practise does the business all the same.
The script is low-key here. Foxcatcher is not a very quotable film, with the focus very much on silent expression or base declarations, the power coming from their simplicity. All three of the main players shy away from monologues, punchy comebacks or character defining prose: in the case of Mark and du Pont, it marks them out as even more awkward, alone and with each other, and in the case of Dave shows him even more as just a run of the mill guy getting caught up in something beyond his control. The script then is basic, but of a level that adds to the affair.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
-So what do I think du Pont really wanted? I suppose control. He’s an emasculated figure, trying to live up to the expectations of his family and his disapproving mother in so many ways. Du Pont is spoiled but painfully limited even so: his sham victory in the wrestling competition gives him just a fleeting moment of satisfaction, before his mother dismisses it in the next scene. Du Pont wants glory, success, adulation, and he wants it to be genuine, not just from his wealth: but he lacks the emotional maturity to get it properly. Instead, he hatches on a wild and money driven scheme to become the godfather of American amateur wrestling, and destroys numerous lives in the process. When it becomes clear to him, even years after the fact, that this control has eluded him and always will, he snaps and breaks from what little convention remains. He lost Mark. He decides Dave has to pay. But the frustrating lack of the storyteller’s impression remains in the film. Why does he carry a gun in the gym? Why does he chase the horses away? Why does he obsess over the APC guns?
-In Schultz book, he posits that du Pont was driven by a desire to make good on a failure to compete and win at the Olympics when he was a younger men. Du Pont trained in wrestling, swimming and the pentathlon, but never came close to Olympic standard in any of them. Du Pont’s previous Olympic aspirations are never made clear enough in Foxcatcher.
-I did love that scene where Dave struggles to perform in front of a camera for du Pont’s gratification. He artfully avoids lying about his opinion of du Pont, and the interview style framing of the camera captures the moment perfectly, as Dave Schultz realises the circus he has become a part of.
-That ending is a heartbreaker. I knew the true story, but there is still a tremendous power in those final moments, in the way that the sudden violence eclipses anything that has come before. That Dave dies in front of his family in what seems to be a moment of whimsical anger from a deranged millionaire makes the scene all the more tragic. Du Pont’s apprehension, after he wanders around his estate directionless, indicates a man who doesn’t even seem to know what it is he’s doing or has done.
-The last moments, and the last shot, bring a close on Foxcatcher’s grim tale. Mark faces into a match of a sport he has previously derided, with a look of pure emotional numbness on his face, long past caring. Du Pont and Foxcatcher destroyed his dreams, destroyed what was left of his mental well being, and then took the last positive influence in his life away from him. All that’s left is to forgo his Olympic career and seek a paycheck, selling his skills in order to make it happen. It’s practically Les Mis: Life has killed the dream Mark dreamed.
-In some ways, Foxcatcher is a film about the American spirit, viewed in as negative a light as possible. Du Pont talks a big game about empowering America, bringing glory to the nation, reasserting moral values and calling back to the lives of the founding fathers for inspiration. It’s like music to Mark’s ears. But it’s all corrupted in the course of the story, with Mark’s American representation ending foully and du Pont, one of the last remaining member of one of the familial icons of the country, imprisoned and disgraced.
-How gripping was that scene where Mark breaks down in his hotel room and flames out? The scene went cliché with the window smashing, but then approached the whole thing in a fascinating light, as Mark just binge eats and wallows in his jetsam. Dave’s discovery of him really drives home the bond that they have, and his dedication to getting Mark back under the weight requirements, through a brutal 90 minute torture in the form of exercise, is one of the films more memorable moments.
-The real Mark Schultz has had some comments to make on the film, specifically on a scene around the midpoint where Mark and du Pont wrestle in the dark inside the mansion. Mark objects to the homosexual overtones of the scene, and they aren’t hard to see: however, the rest of the film largely forgoes this angle. As such, that whole scene struck me as an odd insert: the sequence where du Pont shows Mark off to his millionaire friends was far more effective in making the point about du Pont’s possessiveness, and limply indicating a possible sexual connotation to du Pont’s obsession in such a brief fashion was pointless.
Foxcatcher is an interesting one. Perhaps not quite worthy of the cavalcade of praise, it has some fairly self-evident problems in its general narrative in regards the antagonist (and the actor playing him), and a few other minor flaws with specific scenes and plot points that detract. But it has commanding performances from Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, some suitably grim cinematography to back up the tone, and a story whose sombreness does not drag the film down to an unwatchable level, but instead makes it something in the vein of 12 Years A Slave: an ordeal to watch, a film to be endured rather than enjoyed, but one that will resonate with the audience and leave a lasting impression. It might not be up to the level of other Oscar bait, but it gives it a good shot. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Sony Pictures Classics).