Foxcatcher (2014), an hour in, felt like it might turn out to be a masterpiece. That it doesn’t quite sustain the queasy brilliance of its opening half is a shame but no reason to ignore a fascinating piece of work.
A note on the director: Bennett Miller clearly has a few dominant concerns. If we look at his three fictional outings thus far, there are some prevalent consistencies. Foxcatcher seems to confirm the director’s pre-occupation with mentors and opposites attracting. But in particular, all three films seem to be about loners realizing that, once they have what they wanted, it turns out to be somewhat more mercurial than imagined and they have no idea what to do with it. They have all experienced the world through a carefully chosen prism or shrunk the world to fit inside their own heads. Meddling with that established precariousness, out of curiosity, boredom or perceived necessity, is always dangerous. Foxcatcher, as with Capote and Moneyball, is about what happens to the unclubbable maverick when he meddles, and ventures out of his discomfort zone into something even less accommodating. An argument could be made for self-destructive types bereft of philosophy or rubric pushing themselves into perilous situations (often towards agents of their doom, if that agent isn’t themselves) for kicks.
To extend the link between the three films a little further, all three contain jock-types looking to make it big caught up with a supposedly more wizened figure. Naïve machismo meets (often sexually) fascinated outsider opportunist. What happens when those two become a co-dependent duo? Worrying identity crises; a questioning of purpose; a dwindling sense of what it means to be a man in America; expectation, “the American dream,” versus the horribly vacant reality of what achieving it can mean. People sat around in huge empty houses and stadia, who have “won” but are no nearer comprehending reality, or are too busy avoiding it at all costs.
Miller also seems as fascinated as Truman Capote was by brute force and where the boundaries dividing violence and physical intimacy reside, how people impose themselves, the hinterland between the cultivated persona and a kind of reconfigured, unsuccessfully buried sexuality.
Foxcatcher features plenty of wrestling. Here’s plenty of opportunity to look at some of these issues through the coded specifics of that ancient sport, and Miller doesn’t pass any up. The two wrestling brothers at the centre of the film, Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) Schultz, grapple and butt heads by way of greeting. Ruffalo’s elder sibling and parental figure (long absent father, mother notably unmentioned) seems to indulge such behavior out of a wary benevolence towards his much more harshly evolved kid brother, who wears a mask of belligerent hostility to repel absolutely everyone else. He’s desperately troubled, clinging onto the dulled life-support effulgence supplied by his Olympic wrestling medallion and, when we first see him (perfectly encapsulated inside a few seconds of screen time) morosely flailing and crashing around an otherwise deserted wrestling hall with only a pummeled leather humanoid prop for company. You quickly get the idea that it’s probably his best friend.
He makes a somber, uninspiring speech to a sparsely-occupied lecture hall of yawning kids. When collecting his payment, he corrects the secretary on the name being made payable to: he’s only there because his brother couldn’t make it. He then returns to his walk-up apartment, which is a dive, full of carelessly dumped stuff, to eat badly and drink beer. So, we already understand that Mark’s in his brother’s shadow, and barely casts one of his own.
Then into the picture, as Mark is running through yet another sad wrestling drill with his leather pal as other wrestlers converse and mingle (and wrestle), comes brother Dave (and Ruffalo, not for the first time, is the best thing in the film: sad but stoic, wearied by his brother but dutifully encouraging and patiently mentorish). He’s glad-handing a contingency of wrestling suits and introduces Mark, who ignores them. As everyone else leaves, the two brothers spar a little, and elder Dave is as much mollifying little brother’s rage, coaxing him out of imminent combustibility, as he is running through practice moves. Here’s the only guy who can run through moves with Mark. Bennett Miller manages, inside the opening five minutes, to establish everything you need to know about either brother. One is responsible, fatherly, together (and holding the other together) whilst the other is wounded and purposeless, inarticulate and simmering.
Mark takes a phone call from someone, billionaire recluse John E. du Pont’s aid as it turns out, offering to fly him out for a conversation, “first-class, of course.” He’s languishing in a serious rut so he’s not going to turn the offer down, despite not really having a clue as to what it pertains.
Led into a wrestling-memorabilia packed suite at a large mansion, after being choppered from the airport, is merely a welcome adventure for Mark. Into the room eventually arrives Steve Carrell’s du Pont, an ill-at-ease little boy grown into absurd and poisonous wealth, wandering around his little world and drawing accomplices into his bored fantasy. From the moment we first see du Pont in action, we see why he’s so into wrestling. He’s physically meek and unimposing; he’s awkward and tenuous. More abstractedly, he’s starved of physicality, intimacy, purpose. His father is long dead and his mother (a subtly great wheelchair-bound Vanessa Redgrave) treats him like an errant five-year old. Wrestling is an approximate articulation of his lack. And he wants to build his own wrestling team, Mark Schultz as the totemic fulcrum (phoenix from the guttering flames, or more likely furious lost son of America set back on track, a resurgent iconic juggernaut taking on the world etc), with which he can prove his patriotic manly ferocity by watching his quickly-and-expensively-assembled band of unassuming canvas-clatterers win tournaments from the sidelines and celebrate unconvincingly.
(There’s a creepy and cringeworthy moment in the film in which Carrell’s billionaire, usually hanging back like some diffident and involuntary tsar inspecting his troops to let the professionals do their thing, has to play the performing, authoritative expert as mummy is wheeled in to check on where the latest splurge of money has gone. He has to momentarily assume control of a situation he is merely basking in the alluring but alien pugnacity of from the margins. He instructs his salaried, trained plaything athletes, in horribly awkward fashion, how to do something very basic, as mother looks on, until his ordeal ends as, satisfied that he isn’t simply indulging an expensive whim, she is wheeled away.)
That covers that aforementioned first hour, and the surprise is this: I expected that opening section to form the necessary foreground for all the psychologically intriguing stuff later: this is all based on a true story and so we know murder and devastation is inevitable. But the film runs contrary to such assumptions on my part. That opening hour, which lays the groundwork for what turns out to be the far less interesting descent into depressing chaos, is nigh on perfect. The tone, tricky, is measured exactly right. We feel as awkward as everyone involved, but it’s fascinating just observing this bizarre tale get underway: the politics of the two main relationships (the two brothers; du Pont and Mark) are immediately unequivocal, and the thrill is in the nuances that such ineluctable mutualities dictate. All three actors are exceptional at measuring and administering the right silences and pauses between their lines. Mark’s hurt deference which ultimately saves him; Dave’s level strength which du Pont’s eternal child cannot fathom or emulate and thus destroys; the latter’s ability to convey ageless hurt in a glance (over the top off or down the side of a prosthetic nose of Kidman/Woolf proportions that, in this case, adds to his glaring, spoiled conspicuousness).
What follows is what might’ve been the tragic unraveling. We do witness the dismantling of these lives as du Pont’s boredom threshold and ravaging sense of irreality (cocaine is plentifully ingested), as his congregated retinue of self-entertainment and kudos and virile validity lose their appeal to him and he throws the most pliable member away, Mark, that character he has carelessly molded into what he wanted but is now done with. In being cast aside, Mark is saved, but part of you (and this is testament to Miller’s skill) wonders if he might be best hanging around and fulfilling his destined role as tragic and indicting foil.
But the latter part of the film, the extended denouement (and that’s part of the problem in knowing the eventual culmination: perhaps that’s why the interstitial elements are most compelling) seems obvious, signposted, matter-of-fact. Even as du Pont loses it finally and completely and, with a last line worthy of a Scorsese gangster as he whacks the umpteenth underling unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, queries (although, interestingly, it’s more of a statement of yearned-for fact: he hates himself, has gone insane due to isolated, ultimately worthless excess and emotional deprivation, and can’t understand why Ruffalo’s doomed Alpha male isn’t appalled by him. And shoots him, as much in confusion as anything) replacement wrestling team boss Dave, “You got a problem with me?”
It’s a flawed but compulsive film, unmissable for a host of reasons, not great but partially exceptional, and always watchable. It’s possibly the best work from all actors involved (forgetting Redgrave in a minor role, but including Sienna Miller, almost unrecognizable with frizzy trailer hair), certainly so regarding Tatum and Carrell. Miller is clearly an accomplished director, perhaps stuck in a ‘notoriety/money vs integrity/substance’ loop, as mesmerizing as that is here until the nosedive begins and unmediated hubris triumphs. Hopefully the director will continue to find interesting material, and maybe a new theme, with which to continue to make intriguing efforts.