Review: Foxcatcher (2015)

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Director: Bennett Miller
Screenwriters: E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman
Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Brett Rice & Guy Boyd
Runtime: 134 min // Certificate: 15

Athletes need role models. Like anyone, they need people to look up to… I want more than anything to win a gold medal, and we have someone who can do that, but there are some psychological issues that we must take care of.” – John du Pont (Steve Carell)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8361stZ8n0w]

It wouldn’t be awards season without a little controversy, as Mark Schultz’s flip-flopping reaction to Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller’s take on the tragic tale of Mark, his brother Dave, and billionaire philanthropist John du Pont, goes to show. Based on the true story of Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz’s relationship with Mr du Pont, which ultimately resulted in the murder of his brother Dave at the hands of a jealous, insecure and enraged du Pont, Foxcatcher attempts to tread a very fine line between fact and “fact”, with director Bennett Miller (Moneyball) making certain moves to get into the heads of these three men without making his assumptions and interpretations too overt.

The problem with films like Foxcatcher is that they have a tendency to sacrifice their own internal narrative in service of the overarching story. What happened between du Pont and the Schultz brothers is what everyone’s favourite psychopath Donald Rumsfeld might refer to as a “known unknown”. We know about it, we know what happened, but we’ll never really know the minutiae of how or why events transpired in the manner that they did. In this respect, Foxcatcher’s job is to fill in the gaps and to offer reasons and explanations for what happened, something which it fails to do in any meaningful way. Allow me to explain…

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So, on the one hand, Foxcatcher acts as a double character study into Mark Schultz’s insecurities and John du Pont’s manipulative insanity, and on the other it acts as a simple retelling of an intriguing real-life story. The problem with this approach is that neither of these two threads is properly developed. The characterisation of du Pont is obvious, with allusions to paranoia, insanity, repressed homosexuality, an outrageous desire to be adored and an all-consuming Oedipus complex thrown in our faces whenever he’s on screen, while Mark is presented to us as a naïve and easily-misled kid who is unable to shake off the shackles of his brother’s influence on his life. It’s all surface level stuff that fails to penetrate what it is that truly motivates these characters to act the way they do. Stuff happens and relationships break down, yet there appears to be a “gap” in the narrative, into which all (or even just some) of the potential explanations should go.

Of course, the danger then would be a film that is too blunt and sure of itself, which wouldn’t suit a tale as complex as this one. Alas, the easy middle-ground for which Miller settles does Foxcatcher no favours. He hints at an “inappropriate” relationship between Mark and du Pont (make of that what you will), though it’s done in such a way that it comes across as trite and insincere. The whole affair feels false. There are no catalysts to the major events, other than the obvious signals that du Pont might be a little unhinged, and as such the film feels oddly incomplete, as though Miller has focussed too much on what we know and not enough on the characters or events happening within the confines of the film itself. Save for a few knowing nods here and there nowhere near enough is done to plant the seeds of du Pont’s madness, and so when the inevitable happens one can’t help but feel a little numbed by it all.

That said there is still a lot to admire about Foxcatcher on a technical level. It is a film almost bursting at the seams with quiet intensity and masculinity, and Miller makes a point of highlighting the inherent dangers of hyper-masculinity both in sport and in general life. The juxtaposition between Du Pont’s relationship with his Mother (Redgrave; Atonement) and his paternal relationship with Mark is interesting to begin with, but like most things in the film it quickly falls by the wayside as the screenwriters become bogged down in needless verbiage and stereotypical character quirks that add next to nothing to the characters or their story. Nonetheless, that so many threads are juggled (albeit unsuccessfully) is a testament to Miller’s ambition here, and though his film suffers on a narrative level, his use of autumnal colours and a dim palette of greys and murky browns help instil a creeping tension in the audience that will haunt them long after the credits have rolled. The film is gloomy, both literally and figuratively, and in many ways it flirts with genuine greatness. Alas, whether because of the trappings of the true story upon which it is based or due to simple laziness on Miller’s part, it is a film that promises so much and delivers so very little.

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It would be remiss of me to review Foxcatcher without a mention of the three performances that drive it, so let’s end on a positive note. Channing Tatum (21 Jump Street) delivers a career best performance as Mark Schultz, effortlessly capturing the man’s obvious insecurities and fears while also tapping into his clear talent and ability to perform. Carell, similarly, delivers a revelatory turn as du Pont, and though the character is somewhat crudely-written, Carell (Little Miss Sunshine) manages to keep his menace just on the right side of pantomime. It is Ruffalo (The Avengers), however, who steals the show. His part is arguably the most difficult of the three, as it requires nuance, restraint and a certainly level of “normalcy” to work, but Ruffalo pulls it off superbly. Whatever issues I have with the film itself, I cannot fault the three leads at all.

Foxcatcher is very much an “awards season” film, by which I mean it’s highly praised now but will barely be remembered in five years’ time. It’s an occasionally gripping and often brooding drama that tells an interesting story in a very emotionally distant way, and as such it failed to make any real connection with me. It isn’t a bad film per se, but it’s a film that glimpses at greatness and then scarpers in the opposite direction, which is – if anything – worse.

★★½

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