Foxcatcher (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Entertainment One) Running Time: 134 minutes approx.
If there was ever a caveat that accompanied the slogan “Based on a true story” it is that sometimes it is hard to believe these incidents actually took place. When presented via the medium of film, they are often diluted and glamorised by the need for providing sensationalist drama to truly resonate – presented in a more serious and less superficial manner and the reality becomes all the more frightening.
Foxcatcher is based on the events surrounding two Olympic gold medallist wrestling brothers and their relationship with a wealthy benefactor that ended in the murder of the eldest sibling. It’s a simple but unsettling tale of psychological discord born out of the pressure of fighting for acceptance from and meeting the expectations of one’s peers and family.
The wrestling siblings – David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) and his younger brother Mark (Channing Tatum) – both won gold for the US in their chosen sport and have since moved onto training others. Feeling in the shadow of his older brother despite his own success, Mark leaps at the offer made to him by wealthy wrestling patron John E. Du Pont (Steve Carell) to join his Foxcatcher team and train for the 1988 Olympics.
Du Pont wants Dave to join too but he declines as he has a family. Mark shows initial success training under Du Pont and they gradually form a bond until Du Pont’s obsessive and unpredictable behaviour causes a rift between them. By the time Dave does finally arrive at Du Pont’s estate Mark is entering into a downward spiral and Dave’s commitment to his job finds him in the middle of a tense situation.
Director Bennett Miller, who has made his name with biopics such as Capote, presents us with a film that is cold and very matter-of-factly in its relating of this story, eschewing any notion of making this visually accessible to soften the blow of this tragedy that awaits. It is quite an atypical Hollywood film, with a lack of prominent music soundtrack, many scenes of muted dialogue, intimate and unfussy camerawork and an austere atmosphere that refuses to yield from the onset. While certain less important elements have been subject to artistic license the overall effect is one of authenticity, exemplified by the intense wrestling training the two leads underwent for their roles.
Both Tatum and Ruffalo spent six months learning how to wrestle in preparation for this film, which reportedly took its toll on them mentally and physically. They can both be proud of the results though as their on screen bouts and practice sessions come across as very convincing and legit, heightened by the fact that they weren’t augmented by film or camera tricks – such as slow motion – to disguise any obvious facsimiles in their movements.
The wrestling is a rather small part of the film all told, keeping the focus on the three main characters but it is a great barometer to mark the changes in their personalities. For Mark it measures his struggles to maintain his success and his mindset while surrounded by two conflicting influences in Dave and Du Pont – both having filled the father figure role Mark (or Dave) never had as child. As the older and sensible brother wrestling for Dave is the means for providing for his family as much as it is a passion he wants to share.
For Du Pont, it appears to be a way to rebel against his controlling mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) who hates wrestling and deems it “low”. Du Pont wants to succeed to prove his mother wrong but it is doubtful she will ever capitulate. Like the Schultz brothers, Du Pont grew up without a father and Jean even paid a boy to be her son’s friend, a revelation which has clearly scarred him yet by the same token influenced his use of the family wealth to fulfil his dreams.
A key scene to illustrate the sadness of this relationship comes when Jean shows up one day as TV documentary crew (funded by Du Pont himself) is there filming her son for a special. Upon seeing his mother, Du Pont decides to hold an impromptu demonstration of the basics for his team, hoping mother will be proud. Two minutes of excruciating fumbling from Du Pont later and Jean leaves, her son bitterly disappointed. As much as Du Pont is the nominal “villain” of the story it is hard not to feel a bit sorry for him during this scene.
It is interesting to note that Du Pont isn’t directly demonised in this film or shown to be someone who would eventually murder in cold blood; instead he is shown as an odd, slightly eccentric sixty-something man wanting to give back to his country while wanting the recognition. However Steve Carell’s excellent portrayal of Du Pont does exude an air of creepiness, largely accentuated by the prosthetic nose, cold eyes and gruff speech patterns.
Casting a well known comedy actor in such a role was a risk that paid off for Miller as Carell is as faultless as he is effectively unnerving. Similarly Channing Tatum, he of the chick flick comedy and teenage girl pin-up idol proves himself a worthy serious actor as Mark, bringing a rarely seen depth and command to his characterisation of the tormented brother. And to complete this impressive trio of talent, Mark Ruffalo slips effortlessly into the persona of Dave, demonstrating he is ready for that big gravitas role one day.
Don’t be put off by the run time or the deliberate pace, Foxcatcher is a film that quietly grabs your attention and masterfully gets under your skin, taking us on a controlled journey of peaks and troughs. Respectfully directed, sensitively handled and superbly acted, this is a sobering, tragic but cautionary tale of the effects of manipulation and control on the cost it has on one’s humanity.
English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio
English SDH Subtitles
The Story of Foxcatcher
Rating – **** ½
Man In Black