Creepy, oddly funny, deeply moving and above all true, ‘Foxcatcher’ is one of the best movies of the year. Working from a story that would be completely unbelievable had it not actually happened, director Bennett Miller has helmed his third straight Oscar contender, and it’s probably his most fascinating film to date. If nothing else, you’ll never be able to look at Steve Carell the same way again by the time the credits roll. He’ll give you genuine nightmares rather than those weird ‘Anchorman’-related nightmares you’ve been struggling through for a decade.
In 1996, sheltered billionaire and full-time eccentric John du Pont murdered Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz on his property. That’s the only thing that anyone heading into ‘Foxcatcher’ will likely know about the story, and the inevitably tragic conclusion hangs over the movie in unavoidably somber tones.
Our protagonist is Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who was also an Olympic gold medalist wrestler along with his brother, but due to some pretty severe (and thankfully unexplained) emotional and mental stunting, he was always best known as Dave’s brother. Dave Shultz (Mark Ruffalo) was a sweetheart bear of a man who kept his brother employed and focused from childhood. One day, the bizarre John du Pont (Steve Carell) arrived unexpectedly into Mark’s life. For reasons never quite made clear, du Pont wanted to personally fund and train the American national wrestling team, and courted Mark to be its leader. Together, they formed a very twisted co-dependent relationship that du Pont clearly took more from. Eventually, du Pont invited Dave to join the team and act as coach, even though the increasingly insane billionaire retained the official coach title for himself and even commissioned documentaries about his inspirational techniques. Needless to say, the environment turned toxic quickly and you already know the final outcome.
Miller’s film plays out with the same chilly precision that he brought to ‘Capote’ and ‘Moneyball’. The film is composed of pregnant silences rather than obvious explanations, and the director draws considerable tension out of that technique even if the narrative can occasionally feel like it’s unfolding as a tedious slog. The script came from Miller’s ‘Capote’ collaborator Dan Futterman, as well as E. Max Frye (‘Something Wild’), and the dueling writing voices show. Futterman provided the sense of gravitas, doom, gloom and impending tragedy, while Frye brought wild tonal shifts, unpredictable narrative flow, dark comedy and psychosexual tension.
Miller balances it all in his very serious, somber style with hermetically sealed visual compositions. The story probably could have benefited from a little more of Frye’s pacing and humor, but something about the awkward mix of tones works in the film’s favor. It’s such a deeply bizarre tale filled with messy truths and discomforting psychological implications that too much of a conventional structure would rob the story of what makes it so interesting.
Above all else, ‘Foxcatcher’ is an actor’s showcase with three stars who deliver. Carell has the showiest part and some hefty facial prosthetics to hide behind. He aims for a calm creepiness that’s far more unsettling than any grandstanding could have achieved, and also carves out a tragic profile for du Pont that makes him far more empathetic than he should be. Carell was stunt-cast, yet since the character he plays is so unexpectedly cruel and warped, the casting works in the film’s favor.
In the lead role, Tatum probably delivers the finest performance of his career to date. He hides his high school jock good looks behind the imposing underbite and hunch of a man who can never quite fit in. He feels like a lost child in an imposing athlete’s frame, and you can’t help but have your heart broken by Tatum’s sad and lost stare. He’s absolutely heartbreaking in the role.
Mark Ruffalo has by far the least showy role, but that has always been his strength. The character depends on the warmth and humanity that Ruffalo naturally brings to any performance. He acts as an audience surrogate between the two damaged souls at the center, and like Tom Cruise in ‘Rain Man’, how he reacts to the odd unchanging characters around him anchors the movie. Had Miller cast any one of those three parts wrong, the whole movie could have collapsed. Thankfully he didn’t, and the film works damn well.
‘Foxcatcher’ has had an awards bait bullseye on it since premiering at Cannes, and now it’s hitting screens just in time to drum up Oscar support. All the right elements are here, from the movie stars cast in downtrodden true-life roles to the Oscar-friendly director. The hype is deserved, yet viewers who typically check all the Oscar nominees off of their viewing list each winter may be pretty shocked by what they see. Foxcatcher is a deeply twisted human drama with splashes of dark comedy and hints of social commentary. There’s nothing warm or uplifting about it. This is a weird and dark movie, just one that superficially fits the awards season hype well enough to be a hit. It will deeply disturb some Oscar lovers, and God bless Miller and company for doing that. We need more movies like ‘Foxcatcher’ this time of year.