Foxcatcher sees its idiosyncratic true story through many prisms. Slipping between olympic sports drama, deep character study, and moody thriller, it’s an ambitious bet for any filmmaker of any caliber. But director Bennet Miller doesn’t have a straight or a flush, and the longer you hold out hoping he has an ace up his cinematic sleeve, the more prolonged is your disappointment. Telling its true story like a new American fable, rife with the iconography evocative of American exceptionalism, we’re meant to see the trivariate of Mark Schultz, Dave Schultz, and John du Pont, as capitalist parable. Self important to the point of distraction, Foxcatcher lacks the nuance of Moneyball and the gravitas of Capote, superior films that played to Miller’s considerable strengths as a filmmaker. He directs reasonably interesting stories that, in the hands of many other directors, would have played as professionally told true stories without a hint of vision. Miller has vision in spades, and reaching beyond mediocrity is applaudable. But in his third feature, Miller’s line of site is obscured by a film in need of a dafter hand than his.
I had the luxury of entering Foxcatcher not knowing its fateful conclusion, and while many critics feel justified spoiling the climax, I resolutely do not. Yes, anyone curious can do a quick Google search to see why two wrestlers and an eccentric rich dude became headlining scandal in 1996. These events are public record. But not knowing adds to Foxcatcher, and as the film has a nasty handed turn from true sports story to true crime story (all I’ll say), I experienced a bottom-up jolt. Miller directs the film’s final moments with the utmost passivity, contrasting the intense drama with measured restraint. The sinister feel is nothing if not earned, and the film’s well-staged bitter end has a meanness that’s punctuated by going in blind.
We open with a veteran: a soldier. A remnant of wartime, adorned with medals of valor and accomplishment, he speaks of past glories and the virtues they bestowed upon him. His battlefield wasn’t Bunker Hill, the Beaches of Normandy, or the Middle East. It was a wrestling ring. We see a fit but awkward speaker talking to a class of kids at a second rate school, an olympic medal hanging heavy over his head, then picking up a pathetic check for 25 bucks: a forgotten war hero. His name is Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), our main character. In 1984, he won an Olympic gold medal with his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who, as the film wastes no time telling us, is the better wrestler, the better person, and just a more likable human being. In an early scene, Mark and Dave practice their moves, slapping, slamming, and bleeding one another in an example of Schultz brotherly love. With a family and an attractive offer as a coach, Dave is happy. Mark, eating ramen noodles and playing gameboy alone in his house, hungering to return to the fray, immediately jumps at an offer by eccentric multimillionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carell), a real creep with seemingly with no knowledge or history of wrestling, to train for the next Olympics at his Foxcatcher compound.
The film’s first act is downright morose and filled with silence, establishing the rules of the film’s melancholic universe. Miller uses every trick he can to set the mood, using a grayed palette that washes out the greens from forests and the primary colors of uniforms. The score is occasional and quiet, with long segments made only of kinetic sounds, like feet hitting the ground, heavy breathing, or sweaty bodies colliding. Beyond that, though, Foxcatcher’s mood is a joke; mistakes were made in editing. Making headlines last year, Foxcatcher was a sprawling 4 hour movie in need of shaping, and it took Miller and his editing team 8 months to present this version of the film.
Miller the director is indeed a competent stylist, shooting Valley Forge like graveyard ghost horror and frequently cutting to eerie shots of age old pictures and portraits (often of the founding fathers). But Miller the editor is indulgent, letting shots linger on landscapes, pictures, and even furniture to the point of self-parody. This wouldn’t much matter in another film, but Foxcatcher has a plotless, meandering expressionist quality that relies on tension to be built through mood and not by story. Large stretches suffer. The absence of a narrative becomes a noticeable detriment, and by the 7th time Du Pont does some weird creep shit, it’s like someone screaming in a library.
Partially to blame is Steve Carell’s performance, which undermines the seriousness Miller hopes for. Carell’s first serious dramatic turn is no doubt impressive, and he does his best to fill it with off-putting detail. He sits slumped over, like the Hunch Back of Du PontDom, his head arched up, mouth open, exhaling oddly to fill the awkward silences of his speech. The script hardly goes past caricature, making him into a one percenter Norman Bates, complete with a liking of birds as well as mothers. But it’s as clear Carell is acting as his carrot nose is fake. He never becomes John du Pont in the way Tatum and Ruffalo become The Shultzs, both of them doing some of their best work. Ruffalo gives the best performance of the bunch, imbedding in Dave a weathered humanism that makes you believe in his character the second you meet him. Most impressive of all is how Ruffalo springs from chubby, aging wrestler to spry and skilled athlete, and if anyone deserves an Oscar nomination, it’s him.
Critics who complain Miller obscures Du Pont, and the story as a whole, miss the point. Contrary to traditional wisdom, artists have no obligation to the people and events their films use. The Social Network uses the founding of Facebook as a mirror for millennials, and if facts need to be altered or even changed to do it, it’s in service of the higher ideas of the artist. It is very much the same here, with Miller and his screenwriters making a point about America.
Other films would have made the likable Dave the protagonist, leaving his sullen and strange younger brother for a character actor to bring to life. But Foxcatcher is after something stranger and more suggestive. It’s a deeply American film, and Miller’s is a perverse characterization of this country. Du Pont fancies himself a great American leader, borrowing the rhetoric of heroes and presidents to put himself on a pedestal he’ll only ever get with cash. Foxcatcher implicates capitalism harshly, arguing success is bought, not won. A similar story could be told about The New York Yankees. You’re only worth as much as you sell yourself for, and Du Pont buys Mark easily. His brother has a moral backbone that’s not so easily won, but Dave, too, has a price. In Foxcatcher, everybody does. If The American dream doesn’t exist, Du Pont tries buying his way there anyway. The film is overflowing with Americana imagery; The Foxcatcher wrestling compound is next to Valley Forge, the camera treats the American flag like a sex object, and there are clear parallels drawn between soldiering and wrestling. Ultimately, though, Foxcatcher is the Grimm’s Fairy Tales of Americana storytelling. You just wish it wasn’t all bark and no bite.
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