"Ornithologist. Philatelist. Philanthropist.": 'Foxcatcher' Review
With true crime films, there’s always a particular attention paid to perfecting the atmosphere. The colors, music, and cinematography all work together to craft a bubble of fiction floating effortlessly yet precariously so, above the spiked ground of disbelief. In the past few films I’ve reviewed this month, the atmosphere has always been a focus of the directors, and particular attention has been paid to capture the right tone that simultaneously suspends disbelief, yet creates a compelling fiction that is based in reality. In the case of The Black Dahlia, the atmosphere it created, one of tension and slow-burning suspense, worked entirely in its favor (even if it didn’t completely make up for the film’s other, glaring flaws). Conversely, Sofia Coppola’s honest look at teen crime and celebrity obsession, The Bling Ring, utilized her signature floaty, detached atmosphere with muted blues and soft reds; though pleasant to look at, the sense of disconnect worked to the film’s detriment. Thus, true crime films must not only have an atmosphere capable of ensuring its roots in truth yet also fulfill the needs of crafting a compelling story, but they must also use that atmosphere to enhance the film’s themes or messages or risk muddying the film with confused and contrasting messages.
Though the past two films I’ve tackled this month have had problems balancing atmosphere and story, a prime example of one such film that excels at both is Foxcatcher.
The film focuses on former Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) who now speaks at elementary schools for paltry sums and lives in a modest house close to his wrestling gym where he practices alone and in silence save for his tired grunts and ragged breathing. Schultz is, by all means, a has-been; a one-time Olympic gold medalist and wrestling world champion, Schultz barely gets by without major income and is effectively broke while his brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) a gold medalist and world champion himself, leads a successful coaching career. Enter John DuPont (Steve Carell), an eccentric, reserved philanthropist, sports enthusiast, and millionaire by way of the DuPont family fortune. Contacting Mark, DuPont convinces him to join his private wrestling team dubbed Team Foxcatcher after his father’s famous racing stable.
Though the story of John DuPont and those whose lives he affected is well known, for the sake of consistency, I will not spoil any major plot points within the film though they are documented in intense detail online; to anyone unfamiliar with the film’s story I highly recommend you refrain from researching too deeply into the film. Its true story basis is worth the subsequent research after watching the film.
Foxcatcher is an exceptional film, and an excellent true crime drama not because of the tragedy of the real-life story upon which it is based, but because in almost all of its cinematic aspects, it excels. One of the most prolific compliments given to the film regard its acting and the abilities of the film’s leads: Tatum, Ruffalo, and perhaps most significantly, Carell. For comedy veterans Carell and Tatum, Foxcatcher presents a welcome change of pace in their otherwise monochromatic filmographies. Not only that, the talents it demands from these actors is substantial even for the most capable drama veterans. Fortunately, all 3 of the film’s leads rise to the occasion.
For Tatum, the role of Mark Schultz is challenging in that it is layered and requires him to wear a multitude of faces and switch between them with naturally believable ease. Though a requirement of many an actor’s duties, the role of Mark Schultz is uniquely challenging in that it presents the guise of an acclaimed wrestler, by all means, “the toughest guy in the room” attitude, but explores that personality through presenting Schultz’s frailties and insecurities as a person and competitor. Though the real Mark Schultz on whom the character is based on has publicly denounced the film version’s fragility, this vulnerability adds an intriguing and dynamic factor to the character that invites the audience to question his emotional stability and the toll of high-level, world-class competition in a sport as demanding as wrestling. It is no small statement to say that Tatum wholly fulfills the requirements of this complexly crafted character and adds a level of sympathy that I truly doubt many other actors could infuse into the role. Tatum’s wandering eyes, his fidgeting mannerisms, and soft-spoken personality bring Schultz to life and makes us believe in, and more importantly, connect with his struggles and ambitions.
Perhaps the best part of this film comes in the form of Carell’s unnervingly excellent John DuPont. Shedding his legendary comedy background and diving headfirst into an entirely foreign territory for him, Carell is the supreme highlight of Foxcatcher, a film with too many highlights to list in the first place. Watching old videos of John DuPont, it becomes obvious that Carell studied his eccentricities and quirks so that when he assumed the daunting role onscreen, he did so with practiced ease and a moved as freely in DuPont's imposing and seedy skin as he’s done so many times before when playing a myriad of humorous characters.
One of the most interesting and controversial parts of the film stems from DuPont’s curious (to say the least) relationship with Mark Schultz. Perceiving him as the embodiment of the American spirit for his sports accomplishments, DuPont begins an obsession with Schultz and does everything to please him - but he does so with an ominous and ultimately ambiguous attempt. Though many critics were quick to judge the film as representing a homosexual relationship between the two, which prompted a swift and scathing response from the real Mark Schultz, I personally believe that director Bennet Miller was only trying to portray how DuPont used his wealth and power over Schultz to feel in charge of someone he perceived as his physical better. A sickly child growing up but always one interested in sports, DuPont relished the idea of athletic prowess and it’s no doubt that obsession had a part to play in his pursuit of Schultz’s respect and later on, his subservience.
The atmosphere of the film, its constant overhanging cold, depressive shadow, comes mainly from the personalities of its characters and, by extension, the actors who so masterfully portray them. Though little has been said about Ruffalo thus far, it’s important to note his exceptional talent in portraying the equally athletically capable, but much more compassionate and emotionally aware Dave Schultz. His presence exudes a sense of safety and assurance that everything will turn out alright for Mark and his eventual arrival at Team Foxcatcher, situated on DuPont’s family estate, relieves some of the constant, dreading tension that plays with the audience’s unease. A good chunk of the film’s almost asphyxiating tone, however, comes from its setting and cinematography. Taking place mainly on the DuPont estate, the vast and sprawling racing grounds are a sight to behold, but the constantly overcast sky prevents the light from entering the frame and allowing the large, yet desolate lands from being perceived as anything but lonely. A feeling of isolation amplified by Carell’s exceptional performance as a reclusive DuPont.
Worth seeing if simply for the superlative performances, Foxcatcher is a unique take on the conventional underdog sports story and an even better biopic of John DuPont. Entering this film, the atmosphere may take a little getting used to, it may even make you feel uncomfortable to the point of turning it off, but trust me, that same atmosphere play an intrinsic part in the film’s ultimate thematic success and viewing pleasure and is worth the moments of uncertain anxiety it elicits. Featuring Tatum and Carell’s best dramatic performances in any piece of cinema, Foxcatcher is one of those rare films that combines a real, almost unbelievable story with exceptionally believable characters to craft a movie so fiercely poignant, that it stays on your mind days and weeks after watching it.