What’s there to say about a movie like Foxcatcher? It’s impeccably wrought, well-acted and precisely controlled, yet I didn’t get anything out of the experience that would make me want to recommend it to someone else. It’s cold, it’s moody, it’s unsettling…but essentially that’s all it is, and a movie has to have more to it than simply a sense of atmosphere. There has to be something of a story worth telling, or characters worth knowing- something that leaves you feeling that what you’re being shown is in some way worth your time. I did not get that from this film as a whole, despite the finely tuned crafting of the individual pieces of it.
In 1987, Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, here played by Channing Tatum, was invited to the “Foxcatcher” estate of billionaire John DuPont, whose goal was to provide training grounds for the 1988 Olympic wrestling team and be their coach and advisor. There was no real sense of purpose in DuPont’s life, or so this movie would have you believe, as he was endlessly searching for something to build his legacy on, using his mass inherited wealth to do so. He had no talents of his own, or close friends, and he may have also been using this endeavor to buy himself some of those, as he seemed to want the wrestlers to look up to him as a father figure and a mentor. Or maybe he was physically attracted to them, as the movie vaguely hints, using their presence to work out his hidden sexual desires.
The film doesn’t outright tell us any of this, that’s only me theorizing based on the slightest inferences sprinkled throughout this slowly paced, methodical telling of what happened at the DuPont estate. It ended in the tragic killing of Mark Schultz’s brother Dave, also an Olympic wrestler, but this film wants us to observe and question what it is that led to that event. I can’t say that I have any kind of an answer, and that’s because the movie never focuses on any one aspect of the story it purportedly wants to tell. In some ways this is a character study, not simply of John DuPont, but of each of the Schultz brothers as well. The movie at times trades off between them, and we see various angles of the relationship between Mark and DuPont from different viewpoints, but always from a carefully observed distance. There’s not enough intimacy involved in any of it to know what’s really going on under the surface, and the pace is maddeningly obtuse.
The bright spot is the performances from the actors, all of whom give it their best shot and dive head on into this material, especially Steve Carell as the intensely disturbed DuPont. Disguised by heavy facial makeup including a prosthetic nose, Carell nonetheless does not let the makeup act for him, turning in a deeply unsettling, creepy performance as this troubled figure- so much so that you’re perturbed by his presence and relieved when he’s not onscreen. I’m not sure if that’s a sign Carell succeeded in this role or not- but I was genuinely put off by him and didn’t want to see any more of him than was necessary. Tatum is also impressive as Schultz, and turns in a much more serious performance than we’re used to seeing. As the needy and sulking athlete who lives in his brother’s shadow, he hulks down under his physical presence and changes the way he walks to more closely resemble a wrestler. It shows a canny development of talent from an actor who I used to think sounded like he read his dialogue phonetically.
But best in show here by far is Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz. Blessed with his uncanny ability for complete naturalism, he once again delivers the most un-actorly performance in a very actorly film (he’s using the false prosthetics too, but on him they seem to disappear) and you can’t help but feel the entire movie should have been seen from Dave’s point of view. As the older, more secure brother who always looked after his younger one and still sees what’s going on around him, capable of being bought but incapable of being owned, it’s he who suffers most in the end and he who was least deserving of the troubles brought upon him. Ruffalo is the highlight in a film that feels unbearably frustrating at times, content to wallow in the unsettling atmosphere of DuPont’s wealthy and closed off island without giving us any insight into his character or what makes him tick- or worse, why any of this matters. Why do we need to spend all this time with a man who remains utterly inscrutable, watching as events inevitably unfold without any hint as to the inner workings of his mindset? Do the events themselves communicate something bigger? Is it meant to be ambiguous? Bennett Miller shows off his tight control over every shot and the performances of his actors, but to what end? I’m afraid this story was lost on me. I felt thoroughly creeped out by Carell’s villainous John DuPont, but that was it, and not in a good way.