Of all the things to confront in life, failure is perhaps the hardest.
How it reflects on us, and we on it, and our desperation to avoid it are universal facts of human existence. Foxcatcher is the second title to feature at this year’s London Film Festival that can be aptly summarized as a “psychotic coach drama” – the first being Whiplash; though the two films are in many ways polar opposites.
Where Damien Chazelle’s film was fiery and furious, Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller, is all wintry detachment. Based on real-life events, the film explores its bold themes through three principle characters: jut-jawed wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), his oddball benefactor John du Pont (Steve Carrell), and Mark’s trainer brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). It’s this triumvirate that anchors the 130-minute film.
Tatum’s Mark is a conflicted lug looking for a sense of purpose; an Olympic Wrestling champion, he still feels like he’s spent his life in Dave’s shadow. As such, when the mysterious Du Pont gets in touch via a proxy and offers to finance his future endeavors – and provide state-of-the-art training facilities – Mark scarcely hesitates. Soon enough, he’s firmly ensconced in a chalet on Du Pont’s sweeping, isolated estate, and it’s there that his troubles really begin.
While Magic Mike proved that Tatum was capable of mining depth from his meathead persona, Foxcatcher is his first film to really delve into the psyche of the archetype. Full of self-loathing – he pokes and prods as his well-defined face as if willing it to transform – he quickly buys into Du Pont’s grand designs for their future; though we, the audience, are less likely to be swayed.
Du Pont – John Eleuthère du Pont, to give him his full name – is the hollow idol around which the film is constructed. Hooked nose, dark eyes, bad teeth: Carrell vanishes beneath makeup and prosthetics, subsumed entirely, which is to Foxcatcher’s benefit. As the film presents him, Du Pont is a shell of a man; full of “interests” and grand, albeit soft-spoken, oratory, but utterly vacant for it. He presents himself to the world as a patriot, a born leader, but we see him running lonely laps in the gym he’s built in order to service this narcissistic illusion.
Like Peter Sellers in Being There – if Chance the Gardener was a pathetic, gun-obsessed paranoiac – Carrell has chosen to portray a blank slate; an affected, unshowy piece of craftsmanship guaranteed critical acclaim but unlikely to generate much awards heat. As such, it choice of wrestling as an activity into which to invest so much time and money seems almost perverse; after all, it’s all about the human nature, though the disapproval of, and desire to impress, his mother – a chilly Vanessa Redgrave – may have something to do with it.
The cinematography, from Killing Them Softly’s Greig Fraser, is both crisp and washed out, as if we were viewing events through an icy prism. Foxcatcher’s only warmth comes from the figure of Dave, a loving family man who views wrestling as a vocation. Smaller and wirier than his younger brother, sheepish and bearded, Dave is a “good guy” with nothing to prove, and Ruffalo’s presence in the role places him – the least of the three main roles – at Foxcatcher’s heart.
The film as a whole, bleak and strangely alienated, is imbued with a sense of inexorable tragedy because of this, slowly and measuredly building to a shattering climax. Though it lacks the shock-to-the-system factor of Whiplash, Foxcatcher is, on its own terms, a chilling, multi-faceted success.