Foxcatcher may well be one of the strangest films to be shown in Australian cinemas this year. On the surface, it’s a two-hour film about a tragedy that befalls a wrestling team in the 1980s but, in experiencing it, it feels like less a film than a three-hour tonal exercize, a sports story reconfigured through the prism of fated tragedy, told with an almost beautiful obfuscation of message, meaning or narrative import. Director Bennett Miller, coming off of the sabremetrics film Moneyball has again turned his eye to sport, albeit much more tangentially so than in his previous feature. Foxcatcher is not about wrestling per se, nor is it a character study triptych. Where Capote tracked a man writing a true crime story, Foxcatcher is Miller’s own walk through that well traversed genre. It’s an bleak and absurd account of a bleak and absurd true story.
The film ostensibly chronicles the courting of Olympic champion wrestlers Mark and David Schultz by billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell), who wished to create a world-class wrestling team with himself installed as the atypical inspiring coach. It doesn’t take much to get Mark, played by Channing Tatum, to take the leap of faith — all we see of his life outside of training is solitude ad nauseam, at the butcher’s, home in his apartment, eating two-minute noodles. A strange benefactor claiming that Mark has been betrayed by the American people for the lack of gratitude he’s received taps into something deep within him, and unlike his brother, David (Mark Ruffalo), who has a family and a coaching career lined up for himself, Mark’s only path is in wrestling. As Mark’s entire life becomes something of a human accessory for du Pont’s ego, he starts to suffer a psychological break, though that seems nothing compared to the simmering sociopathy of du Pont himself, whose inability to process his own sense of grief and defeat leads him to commit a horrific act of violence.1
The three central performances are all impressive, and often it does seem like Tatum, Carell and Ruffalo are able to make the film compelling by their sheer presence alone. This is especially true considering the actual violent event that the entire narrative builds toward is handled with so very little sense of continued propulsion; it’s almost as if we stumble on this heinous act as the historical leadtime runs out, rather than as a result of actual dramatic tension throughout. This refusal to run with a more conventional approach to tension actually makes Foxcatcher all the more compelling. Tatum and Carell share the spotlight of the lead role, over time the focus of the film shifts from Mark’s inner turmoil to du Pont’s increasingly unsettling persona. Both are psychologically arresting performances, one of the film’s great strengths is that despite spending more and more time with these men we still can’t be sure of their actions and reactions, Miller never truly allowing us inside their heads. Ruffalo delivers another in the long list of quietly brilliant performances that pepper his filmography. As Dave, he brings the film’s fundamental humanity, a figure orbiting the madness but never slipping into it.
In addition to the cast, what really strengthens the film is Miller’s direction and the work of cinematographer Greig Fraser. The decision to hold locked shots for a long duration enhances unsettling moments, like the almost heartbreaking scene where Dave struggles to say that du Pont is his mentor in front of a hired gun documentarian. Fraser’s sparse colour scheme at first comes across as merely bleak, but as the actual sporting events approach you realise it’s a reconfiguration of the period piece, we get the bright vivid colours of the ’80s reduced to a muted shade. It’s not only in static shots of the sky or scenery that the direction and cinematography impress. The first actual scene of wrestling, a training session between Mark and Dave, plays out and is edited almost like ballet or dance; there’s an intrinsically familiar rhythm to their movements, as Dave helps Mark stretch we stay with them for what is the longest scene of wrestling in the entire film. As we move on the actual scenes of competition get shorter and shorter, they serve merely a narrative purpose now, because everything important tonally is captured so perfectly in this early sequence.
There’s also an undercurrent of the darkly absurd throughout that manages to lift the film from a state of total bleakness. Early on, as Mark drives from Michigan to the du Pont estate in Pennsylvania, the montage of dark, wooded areas is set to “Palaces” by West Dylan Thordsen, which opens sounding like a variation on some of Angelo Badalamenti’s work in Twin Peaks.2 The du Pont family’s relationship with weaponry, first told to us through the hilarious of-the-time VHS tape chronicling “The du Pont Dynasty” resurfaces when we see du Pont having target practice with the local police department on his property, or when he suffers a childish spat over a missing machine gun on the former US Army tank he ordered. Miller even gives Carell an absolutely brilliant scene where he and Mark travel by helicopter to a black tie event. Whilst snorting cocaine, du Pont corrects Mark’s reading of a pre-prepared speech, he keeps getting hung up on “philatelist”3, and ends up staring into the lens, his greying little teeth on full view as he smiles and shouts “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist”. It’s one of the most terrifying moments of the film but one soaked in uncomfortable humour.
Miller doesn’t take the absurdity into the realm of farce, though, he grants us these moments as almost reprieves from this consistent sense of gloom. As Rob Simonsen’s haunting piano score plays over a scene of du Pont walking through the fog-laden land on his property, you get this wonderfully confusing disconnect. We know that the music is haunting and engaging and building to some semblance of reflection and meaning, but the film isn’t on that same level, it’s not even trying to be. Rather than standing out as a defect, though, it’s almost as if Miller has concocted this restraint-in-disconnect to even further unsettle the audience. He doesn’t need to make Carell’s du Pont even stranger, he just has to confuse the certainty of our perceptions of him. The familiar elements of the score make us feel like there are answers, wrapped up in conventional narrative arcs and beats, but there aren’t any, just a series of intentionally half-developed character conceits alongside a refreshing lack of definitive psychological commentary.4
Whilst the pacing of the film impresses collectively, this isn’t as a result of what’s on the page. Miller seems to be bringing forth an ambiguous, beguiling narrative from what is ocasionally an overly blunt script. At times the dialogue tends to underline rather than explain — early on Mark speaks to a group of uninterested children only three years after his gold medal win at the ’84 Olympics, only for us to then see the school registrar get his name wrong, effectively kicking his reputation whilst it’s down.5 There’s also a tonal and narrative derailment halfway through the film, in which Mark’s developing tastes for cocaine and alcohol, leading to a deterioration of his peak level of fitness (and the gain of a fairly hideous hat of blonde hair), are rushed through, placed alongside the most explicit homoerotic scene in the film, one which feels lazily tossed in to make clearer what was already peppered throughout vis-a-vis the potential exploitation of body and emotion in the relationship between Mark and du Pont.6 It’s as if, in this sequence, Miller wasn’t sure whether to push this element of the narrative further, so he becomes caught in a no man’s land, and it stands out because of the lack of his typical sense of tonal mastery.
The seemingly heavy-handed focus on American ideals (“This Land is Your Land” plays at one point) is also on display, though Miller (perhaps thankfully) never allows that to crystallise.7 Whilst we have scenes that touch on so many thematic elements, the strength of the familial bond, ideas of dependency and co-opting of dreams, wealth disparity and entrenched corruption, Miller doesn’t have the film state definitively what it is striving to say. Foxcatcher appears to us as an unusual mystery — where the plot itself is based on fact, everything around it floats by in this unreal haze; much like wandering through the almost ever-present fog, we find ourselves surrounded by beguiling distortions, of place, character and time.
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