Directed by: Bennett Miller
Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall
Director Bennett Miller seems to have carved out a niche in true life character dramas, with Foxcatcher following Capote and Moneyball. His latest film is based around the build up to a shocking event that occurred in 1996. It's an event that oddly seems to have gone unnoticed on the European side of the Atlantic, though presumably Americans will be familiar with its details. It did occur in the age of the post-OJ celeb trial, after all. As the promotional materials skirt around the climactic event, so shall this review.
Miller's film compresses the timeline into roughly a two year period, beginning in 1987. Having taken a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics, Mark Schultz (Tatum) is in training with an eye on repeating the feat in the '88 tournament. A surly character, Mark resents living in the shadow of his older brother, Olympic Gold medallist Dave. When John du Pont (Carell), a member of America's richest family, contacts Mark, the wrestler flies out to his Foxcatcher ranch for a meeting. Du Pont, a former wrestler himself, has developed a state of the art training facility at the ranch, and offers to fund the training of the US team. Mark instantly agrees, but Dave is unwilling to uproot his family. Initially annoyed by his brother's refusal, Mark grows to enjoy striking out on his own for the first time in his life, and develops a warm relationship with du Pont. When Dave changes his mind and joins up with the Foxcatcher team, Mark grows resentful, as du Pont begins to shun him for his older brother.
Reading up on the real life case reveals just how restrained Miller's film is, and it's all the better for it. There are no shouting matches on display here, no stereotypical Oscar baiting grand-standing from his cast. The central trio are arguably best known for their comic roles, but the few laughs found here are as black as night.
Carell's du Pont is a fascinating character, a bird watcher and stamp collector (Ornithologist and Philatelist in du Pont's words). Add train spotting to du Pont's reverie and you would have the full house of social maladjustment. Carell expertly conveys the awkwardness of a man who has everything, but feels uncomfortable in his skin, holding his head aloft to disguise a weak chin and walking like an infant in his father's shoes. Grey in both hair and countenance, he bears the appearance of an unwrapped Mummy.
Carell will take the plaudits, but as the increasingly estranged siblings, Tatum and Ruffalo deliver equally subtle performances, imbued with the sort of unspoken resentment and guilt that can only exist between family members. A de-glammed Sienna Miller is unrecognisable as Ruffalo's wife, though her character is given short shrift in this three headed sausage fest.
Miller's camera is as subtle as the performances of his stars, eschewing the elaborate tracking shots that have become de rigeur for true stories of a tabloid nature. Instead he conveys his characters' relationships through their placement in the frame. In the early scenes, when Carell and Tatum are best buds, he shoots them together in the frame, while after the disrupting arrival of Ruffalo, he keeps them apart in separate shots, as though his camera were acting as a referee between his potentially explosive characters. It's a simple but clever trick that really gets under the viewer's skin. Throughout the film, Carell appears at the edge of the frame or roams the background like the killer of an 80s slasher.
Subtlety is becoming a lost art in American cinema, even in indies, so it's refreshing to find yourself manipulated by a puppeteer with no visible strings on display. If Miller has a weakness, it's his inability to create an interesting female character, but don't let that stop you seeking out this frosty chiller. Foxcatcher is an old school character drama of the best kind.
By Eric Hillis