The opening shots of Foxcatcher are of home movies, ones that depict a patrician family riding horses and hunting foxes. Beneath these cheery images rumbles Rob Simonsen's brooding score, tainting them with a sense of unease. There is no sound recording attached to the home movies, so there is the impression that we are watching ghosts enact a mime scene. We see the words "Foxcatcher Farms" written on the side of a building, indicating that this family will be important to the rest of the film. The sequence that follows immediately is kicked off with the thunderclap of flesh hitting a nylon training bag, and the Neanderthal-like gaze of a hulking man. The contrast is striking, and is one of many that will persist throughout the entirety of the film.
The director of Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller, has now made only three feature films in the past nine years. His previous two were Capote and Moneyball, both of which feature screenplays that involve a lot of talking. Foxcatcher, which is co-written by Capote scribe Dan Futterman, is a major departure, due to its extensive scenes of silence. The three men at the center of the film speaklittle because they don't need to. Two of them are wrestlers and brothers, Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo). Their imposing, ape-adjacent physicality speaks volumes about their backgrounds, strengths, and weaknesses. They have grown up amidst constant uprooting, living in small, shabby apartments and training in dank, gray gyms. Their sport requires them to have massive upper bodies, which they must hunch forward constantly, leaving them with perpetually stooped postures. They shift back and forth on their feet constantly, as if their energy is struggling to find release even when it is inappropriate to do so.
The other man, John du Pont (Steve Carell), is almost eerily still. He has lived his entire life on a massive estate, brought up in the lap of luxury due to his family's lucrative energy company. He is the sort of man who does not need to move for anyone. When he sits, he seems to be melting into the chair, his head tilted slightly upward, and he regards the people to whom he speaks literally down his enormous, Cyrano de Bergerac-sized nose. During conversation, du Pont will cease speaking for uncomfortable stretches of time, especially when he is told that he cannot have something that he wants. Unlike the Schultz's cramped environments, there seems to be more space where du Pont dwells, whether its his personal gym, his palatial house, or the expansive grounds, which seem perpetually to be swathed in gloomy fog. Du Pont uses these areas when courting Mark for his wrestling team, withholding speech and allowing them to do all the talking for him. To tell his story, Miller primarily uses these kinds of images, as they exist as visual expressions of the character's dark psyches.
Mark and David won Olympic gold medals for wrestling in 1984, and by the time we meet them in 1987, they have completely focused their energy towards training for the 1988 games in Seoul. David works as a wrestling coach at a university, and Mark spends his days either in the gym or scrounging money for food by speaking at elementary schools. Although they have achieved glory, those days seem to be long past. Their luck takes a turn when Mark receives a call from du Pont, who wants to sponsor and coach him towards victory. Du Pont is willing to put up Mark and David at his estate.
Mark, who is listless and without a family of his own, accepts the invitation from du Pont to train under him. David initially rejects the offer because he refuses to uproot his wife and two children. Mark begins training with a team at Foxcatcher Farms, showing signs of improvement and impending success. But du Pont is a toxic influence on Mark: he gets him addicted to cocaine, and there are hints that he is abusing him, both psychologically and sexually. Mark's performance begins to flag, and so du Pont convinces David to come to Foxcatcher to help train his brother. Although what happens next is public record, I will not reveal anything further.
Despite the story's basis in fact, Miller seems to have more on his mind than merely recounting historical events. Foxcatcher is about power and how people seek to possess it for its own sake. Du Pont is portrayed as having an enormous ego; it seems as though he has taken Mark under his wing only as an exercise in demonstrated generosity. He lords his wealth over other people, and takes advantage of Mark by waking him up in the middle of the night for impromptu training. He humiliates Mark in front of the other trainees, and accuses him of being ungrateful. Mark reveals to du Pont that his father was absent, and so David acted in that role for him. Du Pont preys on Mark's vulnerability and lack of self-reliance, enjoying the fact that Mark depends on him so heavily, and bristles when he sees that David is potentially more capable of fulfilling that need.
Miller won the Best Director prize at Cannes for Foxcatcher for a good reason, because every frame is dripping with psychological import and darkness. Although the film is realistically portrayed, he utilizes the camera in subtle ways to get into his characters heads. For example, when Mark seems to be at his breaking point during training, Miller holds him in an extremely tight close-up, and his exercises become a furious abstraction of movement and sound. And if Miller's track record is any indication, he is also an excellent director of actors, landing an Oscar win for Philip Seymour Hoffman and a nomination for Brad Pitt. The trio of performances in this film are also career-best, with Carell delivering the showiest, most against-type of them all. He has shown that he is capable of tapping into darkness in films like Little Miss Sunshine and The Way, Way Back, but here he completely disappears into the character, both physically and emotionally. Ruffalo and Tatum are equally excellent. I fear that Carell's stunt casting and Ruffalo's meticulously studied mannerisms will steal all the attention away from Tatum, who has never been better or more disturbed. He smolders when a lesser actor would have exploded, and shows his internal damage through his beaded eyes and jutting underbite.
I've been anticipating Foxcatcher for months, since I was originally supposed to see it at its premiere at the New York Film Festival. I am ecstatic to report that it was most definitely worth the wait, and is easily one of the best movies of the year.