Here’s what we know about Bennett Miller: the man can tell one Hell of a story. This is the same guy who made baseball number-crunching interesting in Moneyball. He’s the same guy who took Philip Seymour Hoffman to a Best Actor win in the chilly but engrossing drama, Capote. With his latest film, Foxcatcher, Miller efficiently recounts one of the oddest chapters in Olympic history; a story that involves amateur wrestling, psychotic breaks, and an almost Shakespearean level of familial discontent. It’s a film awash in doom and gloom, and Miller is only all too happy to make you feel as depressed about what you know is coming as possible.
There’s such a thing as being too good at one’s job. The story of eccentric billionaire Jon Du Pont (Steve Carell) and the Schultz Brothers (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum) is not one that ends on a bright note, and Miller, working from a somber script by Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye, makes sure you experience every gloomy note of it. Even the performances, which have been showered with acclaim since the film was supposed to be released LAST year, are kind of a drag. For all of the numerous themes Foxcatcher touches upon, and they are many, we’re kept at such a distance from the characters that we might as well look up the story on Wikipedia.
Carell, hiding under a prosthetic nose that Nicole Kidman in The Hours would be jealous of, transforms into du Pont, a total nutcase billionaire with a fanatical passion for wrestling. He’s turned his sprawling estate into an Olympic-level training facility, much to the chagrin of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), and hopes to make a statement to the world by building the best team of wrestlers ever for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. To do it, he first reaches out to champion wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum), who has been living in the shadow of his older brother Dave (Ruffalo) for his entire career. Du Pont understands this intimately; one look at his home shows the rich family heritage that looms over him at all times, not to mention the constant disapproval of his mother. So he knows exactly what to say to convince Mark, who doesn’t seem like the brightest bulb in the world anyway, using a grandiose speech appealing to his sense of patriotism. What’s hard to figure, at least right away, is what du Pont is getting out of all this. We recognize that he’s a wacko, but just how far does his mental illness go? Is he dangerous? Is he in enough control of his faculties to use someone like Mark for his own personal gain?
The short answers to all of those questions is “extremely wacko”, “yes”, and “oh Hell yes”. While Mark is initially very happy to be forging his own path separate from Dave, it isn’t long before du Pont’s dismissive attitude and constant demeaning are too much to stand. When Dave finally puts aside his concerns and joins the team, the personality clashes between the three men only cause more problems, leading to a heinous act of violence. Miller unfolds this foreboding mystery in deliberate but detached fashion, often struggling to maintain our attention from scene to scene. That’s not to say there aren’t great individual moments, but they’re largely from the nuanced performances of the three leads. All mocking of his fake nose aside, it’s hard to believe that’s actually Carell because he practically transforms into du Pont on every level. Du Pont is a zealot, a man of incredible wealth and privilege who hasn’t accomplished a darn thing with it. To change that he’ll invest everything and destroy anyone. Tatum is all physicality and pent up aggression as Mark, while Ruffalo is the most mentally-balanced of the three as Dave, although he’s not without a few flaws. Each actor throws everything they have into their performances, and as the narrative shifts focus everyone gets their time in the spotlight.
Along with great work from the cast, cinematographer Greig Fraser does a top notch job capturing the pristine sprawl of the du Pont estate, contrasted with the humble Schultz wrestling gym and living quarters. But where is the energy? There’s no life to this wacky story, and worse there doesn’t seem to be much of a point. When the inevitable happens, in one awful act of violence…that’s it. No coda to speak of, no point to be made, nothing. I’d call the finale “strangely detached’ if the rest of the film hadn’t already been so. The thing is, cold and impersonal is probably just what Miller wanted Foxcatcher to be.