Reviewed by Lachlan Baynes
Bennet Miller’s latest film Foxcatcher is relentless. It is relentlessly bleak in its depiction of 1980s America, relentlessly critical in its deconstruction of the American drive for success, and relentless in its movement towards inevitable tragedy. Foxcatcher tells the true story of John E. Du Pont (an unrecognizable Steve Carrell), heir to the Du Pont family fortune, and his relationship to the Schultz brothers, wrestlers Dave and Mark (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum respectively) as they train for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. Du Pont, as one of the wealthiest men in America, offers financial support to the brothers and installs himself as the head coach of Team Foxcatcher.
First and foremost, Foxcatcher is a character study and it’s strength lies in the performances, specifically that of Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum, both actors undergoing transformations to present something that audiences have never seen from them before. Much attention has been given to the physical transformation of Carrell to more closely resemble the real life John Du Pont. His prosthetic nose, the grey and receding hairline, the sagging skin, fake teeth and pallid complexion combine to truly startling effect, rendering the beloved actor completely unrecognisable. So long a comforting comedic presence, Carrell’s turn here as the unhinged, self-aggrandizing millionaire is unsettling to say the least. It is not just in appearance that Carrell has changed, but his voice too, modulating his pitch and cadence and the rhythm of his speech to truly emulate this man who stares at the camera with blank eyes sunk deep into their sockets. While Du Pont is an accomplished ornithologist, philanthropist and philatelist (a list he repeats to himself almost as a mantra), Carrell’s portrayal ultimately leads you to see this man as pathetic in his desire for acknowledgement and approval from both his ageing mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and the athletes he surrounds himself with. Despite what we know this man to be there are moments where it is impossible not to feel a great swell of pity in the way he limply jogs around the gymnasium or competes in an over fifties wrestling competition.
Yet it is Channing Tatum who delivers what is possibly a career best performance in his portrayal of a slow yet determined (to the point of self destruction) young man constantly living in the shadow of his brother. Similar to Carrell’s Du Pont, Schultz is an accomplished athlete having won gold at the previous Olympics. Despite all this it is impossible not to view the character as slightly pathetic. When we first meet him he is living in near squalor, a large wall covered with trophies and medals taking pride of place in his bare and dingy flat. While Carrell spends hours in the make up chair to transform into Du Pont, Tatum fits into the role of his character with more subtle changes but all contributing to great effect. These are as small as the way he walks, a hulking presence almost constantly hunched, or the way his bottom lip juts out, his jaw and cheeks set grimly in place. Tatum brings an intensity to the role that ties once again to the relentless movement of the film towards tragedy.
When Mark Schultz meets Du Pont, he is tempted with money, success and independence yet ultimately what ties these two men together is a feeling of unworthiness and a tendency towards destruction. Du Pont exercises this vice by buying up old military tanks and firing pistols within the confines of a gym whereas Schultz takes it out on himself, punishing his body unremittingly in several of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes.
A stand out element of the film, apart from strong performances across the board (Mark Ruffalo is similarly brilliant in a subdued fashion, playing the level headed and loving older brother Dave Schultz), is Miller’s sound design. Music is used sparingly throughout, most often in long, slow shots of the Foxcatcher estate entrenched in a permanent mist and fog that clings to the grounds. But what Miller is truly fascinated by is the physical rhythm of movement. Long stretches of the film are dedicated to the sounds of the gymnasium, the grinding of the leg press layered over the top of wrestlers practicing choke holds and arm drags. An early scene in the film between Ruffalo and Tatum takes place entirely within the sonorous confines of an empty wrestling hall, their grunting conversation repetitively punctuated by the whiplash sounds of hands slapped away and shoes squeaking and dragging against the floor. Even a key confrontation between two characters later in the film is shot without actually hearing any of the conversation, the focus is on the actors with the only sound being the rhythmic drone of an exercise bike. In this fashion Miller draws the audience deep into this harshly competitive world while continually focusing attention on the physical performance of the actors. It is a faith in the performances that is well found and yields stunning results.
Aided by three perfect performances, Miller’s film is like watching a train wreck in slow motion; a course has been set and it is impossible to deviate from. Akin to some of Shakespeare’s best work, Foxcatcher builds towards a moment of violence that is shocking in its unexpectedness and tragic in its futility. Even if you know the ultimate outcome of the narrative, you will never look away from the screen.