In the astute hands of director Bennett Miller, the sensational true story retold in Foxcatcher (2014) is never sensationalised. The three main players at the centre of the drama are all fascinating character studies. Firstly, Steve Carell’s John du Pont, the obscenely wealthy man lacking the only qualities he ever really wanted: sporting talent, and the ability to impress his stern, withering mother (Vanessa Redgrave). DuPont’s chief obsession was wrestling, seen by his mother as a “low sport”, far beneath the dignity of the family name – a name entrenched in a rich history of equine endeavours.
From the matter-of-fact introduction of DuPont, it’s clear that there’s something ‘off’ about the man; he’s an eccentric philanthropist whose interest in utilising the brothers, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), and older sibling Dave (Mark Ruffalo), to head his wholehearted support of the American push for Olympic gold in 1988, proves to be a case of exorcising personal demons. Mark, facing a crossroads in his life, meekly surrenders to the prospect of a fresh start at du Pont’s Foxcatcher Farm in Pennsylvania, whilst Dave, initially, can’t imagine uprooting his family’s life interstate. Long-held bitterness, jealousy, and resentment shape the trio’s interactions over time in always interesting ways. With intimations of unresolved sexual yearnings added to the mix, the film expands into a consistently mesmerising portrait of desperate obsessions.
What most distinguishes Foxcatcher is Miller’s downplaying of the material; Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye’s screenplay provides much of its tension from an accumulation of slowly evolving scenarios between the central trio. The film is wonderfully understated in all aspects. There’s an economy of words and sound, from the tense interplay between Mark and Dave whose brotherly trust and connection becomes compromised, and the ever-so-slightly skewed contributions of du Pont. Miller often allows him to hover on the edge of obliqueness, his words sometimes giving the feel of being meant for somebody else. On a secondary level, Rob Simonsen’s score is expertly crafted too; his orchestrations are mostly pared back to offer what is an often sparse, chilling clarity of musical accompaniment.
Carell, so often hamstrung by one-dimensional comedic roles that offer only a reverberation of physical and verbal tics as amusement, immerses himself into this character like never before. Yes, the prosthetic facial enhancements are distracting and pointedly shaped for unnerving effect in many set-ups, but the motivations of du Pont remain curiously impenetrable over time; the whole effect gives the film a compelling sense of unpredictability. Tatum gives perhaps his finest performance to date as the inarticulate Mark, whilst Ruffalo is never less than brilliant. Even in what essentially is an underwritten role, he exudes a rare command in balancing Dave’s rough-diamond strength with fragility. The man remains a class ahead of most actors in American cinema today.
As good as Foxcatcher is, it’s not without minor flaws. The understated nature of Miller’s aesthetic means that greater depth is sometimes sacrificed for meaningful absences of detail. This will be seen as a lack of substance by some, but there’s a strange beauty to be extracted from tantalising questions that don’t betray easy answers. One scene, in which the introduction of drugs leads to a seismic shift in a relationship, does feel like a rare false and incongruous note; it emerges from nowhere and seems to run against the grain of where this same relationship was headed. These minor quibbles aside, Foxcatcher proves to be another outstanding piece of cinema from the gifted Miller who completes a stunning trifecta after the peerless Capote (2005) and the ridiculously entertaining Moneyball (2011).