Early on in Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller’s follow-up to Moneyball, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) starts his training warm-up by wrestling with his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). This is as intimate as the film gets. A wrestling grapple is akin to a hug here, brothers embracing whilst still in competition. That the ‘hug’ can quickly become violent is important to what this story ultimately becomes. Both siblings have won Olympic Gold medals at the 1984 Olympics, and yet Mark is still in his elder brother’s shadow. Mark even stands in for Dave as he talks to school kids about winning the medal (Inspirational he is not, one of the badly needed comedic moments in the film). With the next Olympics looming Mark receives a call from millionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carell), who makes him an offer: come train in his purpose-built training facility at Foxcatcher (the family sprawl in Pennsylvania) and inspire a new generation of Americans. Of course all is not what it seems. Initially, all is well, with Mark having a father figure who enjoys speaking to him instead of Dave. But ulterior motives slowly come to the surface. Mark starts to feel like the lure to finally coax Dave to come to Foxcatcher.”
On the surface Bennett Miller seems to have become the new Ron Shelton. Two sports films in a row, yet neither is really about the sport that takes place within the film. In Moneyball the driver is the cold and logical use of metrics to measure an athlete’s time at the top. In Foxcatcher wrestling is at the periphery. This is a film about compromise and connection. When the connections sever, the consequences are disastrous. The two films may have sports as their veneer, but the camera cares more about the background work, in offices and sweaty sports halls, people struggling along quietly. The results of such lonely pursuits in the case of Foxcatcher are horrifying.
Miller is clearly an actor’s director. He has elicited terrific performances from actors such as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener in Capote and Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in Moneyball. In Foxcatcher there are a trio of performances that are amongst the best this year. Tatum is absolutely superb as Mark, a lovable and quite sad lunk. We see in his eyes the pain of years of playing second fiddle to Dave. Yet it is clear that Dave loves him dearly, with Ruffalo doing some seriously great work in the least showy role in the film. Carell is terrific. His Du Pont is all quiet and stillness and it is easy to see his view of the world as myopic. He talks about raising the nation by giving them heroes but there is no emotion in the words. His words are slowly presented like gifts, but with an undercurrent that is deeply troubling. We see Du Pont pretending to be the coach in charge to impress his mother (Vanessa Redgrave, excellent in a cameo). It is both horribly funny and desperately sad. The image of him trying to jog around a sports hall is quite frankly terrifying. Carell does it with very little arm movement and it seems like he is in slow motion. Du Pont is of the ‘old money and eccentric’ end of the spectrum, but Carell never strays into caricature. Du Pont genuinely believes that he can buy anything with money and is genuinely staggered to learn that Dave cannot be bought.
A beautiful ugliness pervades the film. The film has an airless and quite suffocating quality. This is amplified by the cinematography of Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Killing them Softly) who does a wonderful job catching those beautiful early morning mists. Ever so subtly, seasons change and the weather shifts, but the isolation and quietness are a constant. The camera is still for the most part to emphasise this.Make no mistake about it this is a film full of quietness, but it is electrifying. There is a tension that clings on throughout the running time. Conversations are charged, scenes almost take on an otherworldly quality. Much of this is due to the alienating and damp quality of the brilliant set design of the Foxcatcher compound. The film takes place over a number of years and the majority of the film takes place within the estate. The screenplay by E. Max Fry and Dan Futterman feels economic, despite the 2-hours-plus running time and no real break from dialogue. The direction by Miller is controlled and his staging of scenes is superb. He is now 3-for-3 in his career and is becoming a top filmmaker. We are in the early dawn of 2015 and yet it will be a surprise if Foxcatcher is not close to the very top of the year’s best films. There is every chance with time and repeat viewings that this could well become a modern classic.