Film of the Week: Foxcatcher
A story can feel entirely different depending on whether you know the ending in advance; that’s implicit in the nature of tragedy, which addresses your awareness of watching the inexorable workings of the “infernal machine,” as Cocteau put it. So Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher felt like an entirely different film to me on my two viewings. The names of John E. du Pont and the Schultz brothers may well ring a bell with you (and if not, here’s a major spoiler from The New York Times).
When I first saw Foxcatcher, in Cannes this year, I knew nothing about the real-life background to the story. The film felt maddeningly elusive: I couldn’t really tell how comic the comedy was meant to be, couldn’t quite tell how unequivocally the film was meant to be read as a sports movie… In short it seemed to be one of those films that keep you asking, more than a little impatiently, “Just where is all this going?” Well, maybe I was being obtuse, or suffering from that festival fatigue that can severely numb your perceptions, but on a second viewing, with everything now seeming to point irrevocably towards the outcome, Foxcatcher felt a lot more focused and coherent, and I appreciated the film’s qualities more. And yet conversely, it become slightly less intriguing: once you know the specific incident that’s coming, Foxcatcher becomes a coherent, outcome-focused true-life drama, whereas if you don’t, then it’s something oddly fragmented and perplexing, and certainly the damnedest—most eccentric and melancholic—sports movie you’ve ever seen. I’m glad I got to see both versions, if you see what I mean.
Set in the Nineties, the film opens with Olympic gold-medalist wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) giving a glum, inert motivational speech to a group of schoolchildren, for a $20 fee; he’s standing in for for his older brother Dave, also an Olympian, and more of a star attraction. Dave (Mark Ruffalo, bulked up and bearded like Popeye’s nemesis Bluto) runs a team and is a more forceful, canny, balanced family man; whereas Mark is sullen, solitary, and inarticulate, his whole being somehow defined by lack. That lack (possibly associated, in Mark’s real life, with the early death of his father, although the film never mentions it) is only filled in by Dave, seemingly the missing part that allows him to function. Their relationship is spelled out early on by a very eloquent scene, as the brothers greet each other with an embrace that’s also a battle hold—it begins with hugs and a tender “How you doin’ buddy?” before passing through various shades of violence and tenderness. It’s a superbly choreographed and performed pas de deux in which Tatum and Ruffalo become a piece of living statuary. If there were an Academy Award for Physicality, the pair would win it hands down.
Then Mark acquires a guardian angel. A phone call summons him to meet “John E. du Pont, of the du Pont family”—the multimillionaire scion of blue-riband grandees going back to the 18th century. Mark sits waiting at the august family mansion in Pennsylvania, in a vast stately library (the sort that doesn’t seem to have many books on view), and in walks John Eleuthère du Pont himself—at which point the film’s weirdness quotient shoots up several notches. Du Pont is a strange enough character in himself—detached, stiffly courteous, yet also oddly informal, shuffling in with no ceremony in a short-sleeved shirt and announcing: “I’m a wrestling coach and I have a deep love for the sport.”
But then there’s the strangeness of Steve Carell’s performance—and the strangeness of the very fact that it’s Carell in there, entirely unrecognizable, even down to his eyes, under the prosthetics. It’s the most thorough facial transformation of a normally recognizable star—perhaps beyond Charlize Theron in Monster, De Niro at the end of Raging Bull, Nicole Kidman in The Hours. In fact, that seems to be Kidman’s Virginia Woolf nose itself staging a comeback on Carell’s face, and the effect can be a little distracting (not least for Carell himself, who’s required to squint past it).
And yet the brilliance of Carell’s performance is that it emphasizes its own oddness all the way, along with du Pont’s. For this is a portrait of a man who might be an ordinary example of the eccentricity that accompanies wealth and privilege (the rich and powerful often coming across as all the stranger when they try to act normal). Or alternatively, du Pont’s disturbance may be far more extreme than the sort that ordinarily accompanies the assumption of entitlement. You have to reach the end of the story to know for sure.
At any rate, Mark is dazzled by du Pont’s quietly rousing talk of patriotism and Valley Forge, and agrees to sign up on Team Foxcatcher, named after the patron’s farm. He is soon in thrall to the great man, who’s determined that his protégé should see him as a father figure. For du Pont is obsessed with adulation, and with creating his own myth. In one of the film’s most excruciatingly comic moments (so effective because so dryly handled), he tells Mark: “Most of my friends will call me Eagle—Golden Eagle. Or John.” He later has himself videotaped giving a pep talk in a golden satin jacket, in front of an eagle statue and the Stars and Stripes. And, en route to an event in his private plane, he runs Mark through a speech he wants him to make, paying tribute to his noble mentor—a hilarious mantra of “Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist!”
The drama racks up several notches when du Pont insists on adding Dave to his team—or rather, his collection. By now Mark is a changed man, traumatized or jealous that he has to share the glory, or du Pont’s attentions. Precisely what happens to erode Mark’s already damaged psyche, and precisely why he starts rebelling against du Pont, is never spelled out but left for us to piece together—a mark of narrative intelligence and restraint on the part of Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman. There’s one notable jump, and on first viewing, I wondered whether a whole chapter had been jettisoned in the edit, although I’m now inclined to think that this ellipsis is integral. It involves a fade to black, shortly after Mark’s tribute speech. Du Pont has, for the first time, been plying him with cocaine on the journey there; and now, after the jump, we can see that Mark’s body is no longer a temple, and neither is his psyche. He’s highlighted his hair, is surrounded by beer bottles, and now seems to have become an intimate personal attendant-cum-confidant to du Pont. The wrestling holds that the pair practice together now seem more sexually charged than you’d expect, even by the usual standards of male mano-a-mano tussling.
Exactly what’s going on here is left to us to gauge. But there’s certainly a powerful sense of two lonely men, neither properly grown up, responding to each other’s need, even if the playing field is hardly level. A constant theme is du Pont’s petulance and his simmering resentment of his mother Jean. She’s played as a chilly, ever-so-graciously castrating grande dame by Vanessa Redgrave (whose passionate left-wing convictions give a tart poignancy to her portrayal, the character’s regal dowdiness uncannily recalling Britain’s reigning monarch).
Mrs. du Pont shudders at wrestling as a “low” sport, while her son loathes her favored equestrian pursuits: he has his team clear away her hunting trophies, bleating contemptuously, “Horses are stupid. It’s all very silly.” Later, when mother and son finally sit down together, she asks what he intends to do with his old train set. He snorts at such fripperies: “I am leading men! I am giving America hope!” But clearly he’s a man for whom life is about turning everything he fancies into his personal train set, whether it’s buying a tank from the U.S. Army or assembling a team of blue-collar males as possessions. Which makes Foxcatcher the most explicit American film in a long time about the wealthy riding roughshod over the working class.
Inevitably, it’s the rich man, in his flamboyant weirdness, who hogs the limelight in this story, not least because Carell’s performance is so magnificently odd, both troubling and touching in its creation of a vulnerable monster. It’s far more than a catalog of tics—the quiet, ruminative “Ohhhh…”, the dead eyes, the way du Pont carries his head as if it’s a little too heavy, and the sing-song sourness of his killer line, “Did you catch the fox—Motherrrr?”* It’s a wonderful portrayal of delusion and vanity, and as the story progresses, of something more troubling. And the film very elegantly lets the strangenesses crop up, without making a big deal of them: like du Pont’s sudden appearance in a Civil War jacket, which is never commented on.
But Carell’s performance shouldn’t overshadow the less demonstrative roles. Ruffalo is solid and tender, putting some warm new inflections on the gentle-giant routine that he’s been perfecting all these years. And I fear I underrated Tatum’s achievement on first viewing. It’s the hardest thing in the world to give life to a character that’s so much about inarticulacy, interiority and repression, but the subtle, sometimes enigmatic changes that Mark goes through make this a very nuanced performance indeed.
With its leisurely pacing and the austere muted palette of Greig Fraser’s photography, this is a rich, serious film, but it doesn’t quite overcome a certain academic solemnity—you sense a rather dogged determination to be a Great American Film, not least in its earnest questioning of some of the totems of Americanness. Yet there’s plenty of subtly handled excess to hold you aghast—and whichever way you slice, I maintain that yes, it is the damnedest sports movie you’ve ever seen.