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Review: Foxcatcher (2014)

Foxcatcher (2014)

Directed by: Bennett Miller

Premise: Based on a true story. Olympic wrestling siblings Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) train for the 1988 Olympic Games at the Foxcatcher compound owned by eccentric millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell).

What Works: Foxcatcher is a story of Olympic athletes but this is not Chariots of Fire. Foxcatcher was directed by Bennett Miller, who had previously directed 2005’s Capote. Like that film, Foxcatcher tells a story of obsession and murder and it maintains a cold look and an atmosphere of dread. In some ways it subverts the typical sports story; those movies are usually about the ethics of heart and hard work and they glorify physical prowess, sportsmanship, and teamwork. Foxcatcher turns those themes on their head. At the point at which the movie begins, the Schultz brothers are already Olympic champions and Mark, the younger brother, is preparing to compete again in the 1988 games. They are approached by John du Pont, a millionaire who loves the sport of wrestling and offers to sponsor the United States Olympic wrestling team. He sets about persuading the Schultz brothers to base their operations at the training facility he has constructed at his Foxcatcher compound and he assumes the title of coach, even though du Pont has no actual skill as an athlete or as a wrestler. Foxcatcher is less like films such as Rocky or Invincible and much more like Raging Bull and The Wrestler in that it is a character study of athletes who are corrupted by their success or otherwise struggle to maintain their greatness. The most extraordinary thing about Foxcatcher are its central performances. Channing Tatum and Steve Carell reveal aspects of their talent that we’ve never seen from them before. Both of these men are likable actors but in Foxcatcher they turn off their most accessible qualities. As Mark Schultz, Tatum is a revelation, using his physicality to communicate the inner life of his character and Steve Carell further proves his dramatic chops in the role of John du Pont. It is a bizarre role and Carell is able to be threatening while doing very little. Mark Ruffalo is cast as David Schultz and as usual Ruffalo is a reliable actor, contributing a lot to a role that is underwritten.

What Doesn’t: Foxcatcher is compromised between the requirements of a thriller and a character study and it never fully succeeds at either one. The film has great performances but the storytelling tends to be flat. Some of that is due to the style of the film. The whole picture has a cold, unemotional look and the filmmakers don’t use a lot of cinematic elements that would bring the viewer into the storytelling. Since it is based on a true story, Foxcatcher has a predestined climax but the plot does not drive toward that moment. A lot of the film feels fragmented with plot points isolated from each other and the whole picture lacks narrative momentum. That would be passable if Foxcatcher got further beneath the surface of its characters but the filmmakers don’t reveal very much about anyone. It is unclear whose story this is supposed to be. The film begins as the tale of Mark Schultz’s pursuit of Olympic glory but Mark gradually falls away and neither David Schultz nor du Pont ever take the lead and so the story is without a point of view at its most critical point. The key to the movie is John du Pont and Carell is great but nothing about du Pont is revealed that we didn’t gather from his first few scenes. David Schultz is kept even further at bay and we learn even less about him or his relationship with his brother. When the film gets to its climax it hasn’t really peaked as a story nor has the audience reached any conclusions about these characters. The movie is bereft of a point; it has a lot of ideas in it but those ideas aren’t marshalled into a coherent thesis that’s acted out in the drama.

Bottom Line: Foxcatcher has some stunning performances and for that it is worth watching. The film comes up a little short in actual substance but there is enough here that is engaging to make up for that.

Episode: #527 (February 1, 2015)