Sadly walking away empty handed at this year’s Oscars Foxcatcher was always going to be a tough sell for award voters. But that’s not to say that it isn’t a staggering film but rather it is essentially too dark, too unsettling and too outright sinister to seduce viewers who like their ‘based on true stories’ to be a little more uplifting than disturbing.
The film charts the true events of Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a down-on-his-luck Olympic Gold winning wrestler who forever feels in the shadow of his big brother, and also Olympian Wrestler Dave (Mark Ruffalo). That is until he meets John du Pont (Steve Carell), the eccentric philanthropist heir to the du Pont dynasty. Recruiting Mark to train his Foxcatcher wrestling team to compete in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, du Pont and Mark form a tight bond. But there is a dark side to du Pont and the reality is that his wealth has isolated him from the world. Soon Mark begins to realise that he is a pawn to try and get to Dave and the ever-watching du Pont begins to sour towards his protégé.
Director Bennett Miller has a canny ability of conjuring character based dramas that tell compelling stories. Foxcatcher is no exception and takes the chills and mystery of his Captoe and mixes it with the sporting world of Moneyball. But unlike his previous excellent efforts there is a real edge to Foxcatcher, a razor sharp one that will nestle just beneath the skin causing you to squirm with discomfort.
There are a series of fascinating character dynamics in constant flux throughout. On the one hand you have Mark and Dave’s brotherly love that doubles as a sibling rivalry for Mark. But beneath it all you have Mark and John’s ever evolving relationship. At first they are employee and boss, then friends, then something altogether more disturbing. As Mark and Dave celebrate the success at the World Championships so John monitoring from the stands, analysing the Schultz brothers, desperate to a part of their world but watching, as you suspect he has his whole life, from the sidelines trying to absorb their behaviour in an attempt to replicate it for himself, in essence he wants to usurp Dave’s position in Mark’s life. But more than anything John wants to bask in the glow of the Schultz brothers’ success, he wants to make it his own without earning it.
Miller creates a bleak world for Mark to occupy. The Foxcatcher estate is seeped in history but behind the walls and the fences there are secrets, the du Pont family fortune coming from munitions sales is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a visual drain to the colour pallet of the film, even the vibrancy of the wrestling uniforms seems somehow stilted. John’s mother, played with a pursed-lipped dominance by Vanessa Redgrave, is little seen but always felt force within the film and it is here that much of the terrifying nature of Foxcatcher spawns. She represents a level of control over John that he feels the need to force on to others.
The performances are all staggering. Tatum, the only key cast member not to be Oscar nominated, is on career best form. His Mark cuts a tragic, knuckle-dragging figure, there is a desperation to him in Tatum’s hands, a man awkward in others’ company. Ruffalo meanwhile is typically charming, his Dave is kind, friendly the perfect family man, the kind of role that Ruffalo does with such grace it’s hard to imagine he’s anything other than this in real life. But the real revelation here is Carell. Behind his prosthetic nose and forced smile lies a horrifying man. The saying goes if you can do comedy you can do any form of acting and Carell demonstrates this in spades. Such is the power of Carell’s performance that du Pont brings an omnipresent feeling to whole film, even when not on screen you sense him lurking, watching with beady eyes as if monitoring the world he has created.
Foxcatcher is a wonderfully twisted true story of the American Dream grown rotten with wealth and ambition.