Saturday, January 17, 2015
(Foxcatcher is based on real events. If you don't know the story going in then skip this until after you've seen the film.)
Foxcatcher runs about two hours and 15 minutes, and to live inside the film for that time is be in a curious place. Bennett Miller’s film is the story of the brothers Schultz, Mark (Channing Tatum) and David (Mark Ruffalo). Both Mark and David won gold medals in wrestling at the 1984 Olympics, but as we meet them three years later Mark is scratching out a living and the more settled David is working as a coach. Foxcatcher is the story of what happened when the Schultz brothers met John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), the heir to the du Pont family fortune and a self-styled patron and “coach” to American wrestlers. John du Pont murdered David Schultz in 1996.
It feels strange to say this about a film that ends with a murder, but Foxcatcher should have been funnier. There was ample opportunity for satirizing the Reagan-era, a time when the slavish restatement of “American Values” began to be turned into political currency. The way those values filter into sport is also a rich subject, but the film considers du Pont and his world with a total lack of irony and a cool distance. Steve Carell plays du Pont as a dead-eyed fish, a man completely incapable of casual social interaction who is unable to conceive of a world where someone can’t be bought. It is an impressively committed performance, but one that in the end is more about mannerism than soul. (Carell’s best moment involves du Pont’s cocaine-fueled delivery of the words “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist.”) There is a dry humor in the way du Pont delivers cliché-ridden speeches to the wrestlers who come to train at his “Foxcatcher” estate, but the script goes back to this well over and over because du Pont as a character lacks psychological depth. Only when du Pont is with his mother Jean (an underused Vanessa Redgrave) does the mask begin to slip. Jean dismisses the sport of wrestling as “low” and quizzes John about a childhood train set, and it seems the film’s conception of du Pont is nothing more complex than that of a little boy who never got enough love. Was du Pont insane or a true believer who crossed a line? The filmmakers aren’t sure and neither are we.
The best thing Foxcatcher has going for it is the performance of Mark Ruffalo as David Schultz. David is the older brother, a natural teacher and a figure able to move easily within the U.S. Wrestling establishment. Ruffalo plays David as filled with a deep love for his wife (Sienna Miller), children, and brother, but as also possessed of a pragmatism about what’s best for the people in his life. The early scene where David and Mark warm up together is remarkable both for the physical effort of the actors and for what it says about the brothers’ connection with each other. If only Channing Tatum had as much to work with as Mark. As written Mark is an empty vessel and neither Tatum nor the movie can fill him. To put it another way, the movie’s Mark isn’t smart enough to be interesting. Mark’s lack of reflection is of a piece with the movie’s cold recounting of events, with its refusal to engage with the way that class has twisted du Pont’s idea of the meaning of words like “excellence” and “winner”. If Bennett Miller and his writers want the audience do the work that’s fine, but given the public nature of the events being depicted it is fair to ask why this film was made if the artists involved were going to so understate the effort to figure out a larger meaning. Foxcatcher would very much like to be a film about America writ large, but it doesn’t get nearly far enough off of John du Pont’s estate.