Director: Bennett Miller
Major Players: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo
Out Of Five: 4.5
Released on DVD on Monday alongside A Most Violent Year comes Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, a film with its own back story. Originally scheduled for release in 2013 and always viewed as an Oscar contender, it was held back because the field for that year’s awards season was so fiercely competitive. So it actually made its first appearance at Cannes last year, winning Bennett Miller the Best Director statuette. A good start, but it all rather stalled there because, although the film garnered a number of award nominations – Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Oscars – it came away empty handed.
Sadly, it wasn’t a huge surprise and that had nothing to do with the quality of the film. It’s a story that just isn’t going to grab the Academy voters, one that’s bleak, cynical and has nothing uplifting about it.
As with Miller’s other two feature films (Capote, Moneyball), it’s based on a true story and, like A Most Violent Year it’s a view of the American dream, but it’s even bleaker than Chandor’s movie. The Du Pont family has achieved that dream, it’s insanely rich and powerful, with all the trappings that go with it. John Du Pont (Steve Carell) has set himself up as a wrestling coach with the aim of winning a gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. He starts to train Olympic champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) but his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) takes longer to accept the same offer. When he joins the team, he concentrates on working with his brother, but he and Du Pont don’t hit it off from the word go ……
This is a film that takes us to the dark heart of the American dream. Du Pont has a strained relationship with his domineering mother, so he takes up interests that he knows she won’t approve of – a perverse way of getting attention from a woman who he describes as having paid the chauffeur’s son to be his friend when they were both young. That boy was his only friend. Or so he believed.
Put that together with the Schultz brothers’ talent and ambition and it’s a collision course. Mark is the less articulate of the two, only able to express himself through physical action, either in terms of wrestling or beating himself up when things don’t go according to plan. Paranoia sets in, fuelled by drink and cocaine, and that applies both to him and Du Pont. Dave is a more balanced character, happily married with young children, a less volatile temperament and a calming, steadying influence on his brother. But for Du Pont, he’s a rival, a threat.
Bennett Miller has an uncanny ability to identify a good story, especially one that, at first sight, isn’t obviously cinematic. A movie about baseball is fine for the US, but what about the rest of the world. But Moneyball was critically acclaimed over here as well. And he has a hankering for stories based on true events, which bring their own individual challenges.
Yet, despite those complexities – and that applies especially to Foxcatcher – he sticks to his customary direct style of filming, allowing the power of the narrative and the performances to do the work. Here, however, he adds something to the mix – crucial scenes which have no dialogue, just a bit of soundtrack. And, because it’s done in a straightforward way and relies on the skill of the actors, it’s powerful stuff.
The triangle of actors at the centre of this wrestling hell is seriously impressive. Steve Carell’s change of appearance has been talked about at length, although we have to wait to see his face in full. All we hear is that strange, slow, mannered way of speaking. For somebody who’s associated with comedy, he delivers a performance that shows he’s an extremely good serious actor as well and shouldn’t be restricted to just making people laugh. His talent stretches a lot further.
Miller has the knack of getting superb performances from all his actors and this is the perfect example of how, given the right part and the right director, Channing Tatum really does deliver. He’s made some utter turkeys, which earned him the dubious accolade of being described as “a potato” by Film 2015’s Danny Leigh. He’s nothing like that here. Leigh’s description’s has had its chips, because Tatum more than holds his own as the less intelligent of the two brothers, the more confused one, who doesn’t really know who or what he is and is all too easy to influence.
Ruffalo has the less showy part and less screen time, so it’s to his credit that he’s equally memorable. He’s not doing his usual schtick of the easy-going charmer. A more relaxed character than his brother, he’s found contentment as a husband and dad. But he also knows that his brother needs him and why – and he knows there’ something deeply strange and wrong about Du Pont.
Foxcatcher makes a great DVD because it’s one of those films that you need to see more than once to get everything out of it. And simply to admire it all over again. I’ve not said “enjoy” because it is an uncomfortable experience and you don’t relish it in that way. You immerse yourself in it, respect it, and you’re fascinated yet almost repelled by it at the same time. The wrestling scenes probably had more impact in the cinema, but the smaller screen intensifies the psychological aspects of the film, which is actually what it’s all about.
With three such varied, fascinating and superbly made films under his belt, I can only imagine what Bennett Miller might do next. Whatever it is, I can’t wait.
Foxcatcher is released on DVD on Monday, 18 May.