Amazingly, Foxcatcher is based on a true story, one so bizarre you’d think it had been conceived in the muscular soap opera that is the professional wrestling. Deception, violence, murder, 50 calibre machine guns, Olympic gold and a spot of twitching are just a few of the elements in Foxcatcher’s world tailor made for the WWE, but this is a tale of amateur wrestling, far more disturbing and gripping than anything Vince McMahon could conjure up.
The two key figures in this absurd story are Olympic goal medallist brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). The brotherly dynamic is established in a tense sparring session where the older, wiser, Dave pins the hulking aggressor Mark. There’s brotherly love in there, but like a contemporary Romulus and Remus, threat simmers below the surface, briefly boiling over as Mark head-butts Dave in the fraught grappling. Whether it’s on purpose or not is tantalisingly left open.
Soon after, Mark, who functions like the evolutionary link between ape and man, is phoned out of the blue by mysterious philanthropist and wrestling enthusiast John E. du Pont (Steve Carell). Du Pont offers to become Mark’s mentor and provide him with all he needs to succeed as the world’s best in his sport. While Mark gleefully joins Du Pont’s ‘Team Foxcatcher’, his brother, with a hint of scepticism refuses the offer, leaving Du Pont to foster an abnormal paternal relationship with his new protégée.
What stands Foxcatcher apart from sporting sibling knockabouts like Warrior and The Fighter is the emergence of the third party, John Du Pont. Carell’s unlikely turn as the billionaire is utterly enthralling and terrifying. Lurking in his opulent manor, Pont is like one of those fabled eccentric British nobleman. Rather than ride bears round his house or have dinner parties for pet dogs, he buys himself tanks, wakes up Mark at ungodly hours to hand him twitching guides and even commences a wrestling career at 50 plus years of age. The mere fact he’s putting all his wealth into housing a wrestling team called ‘Foxcatcher’, for which he deludes himself to be the coach o,f is a pretty bold exercise in eccentricity.
But it’s not Du Pont’s eccentricity that’s so jarring. It’s the fact he has to be one of the most despicable and unlikeable characters in film history. He’s an odd, pathetic, lecherous man whose best qualities are being egotistical, deluded and manipulative. Du Point nicknames himself ‘Eagle’ or ‘Golden Eagle’, aided by the physiognomy of his beaky nose, but he’s more like a vulture, always watching from a distance, judging people like an exercise in his beloved twitching, waiting to scavenge off others’ successes.
With Bennett Miller’s direction each scene lingers uncomfortably leaving us to squirm through the embarrassing agony of Du Pont’s actions. The most painful of these scenes is when Du Pont masquerades as a wrestling tutor to impress his mother despite being utterly clueless about the sport. As his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) wheels away in abjection Du Pont is left humiliated, you almost feel sympathy for him as he sulks away from the awkward glances of those around him.
This sympathy fails to last long as Du Pont exposes himself as an over grown, spoilt child. Answerable to his mother at all times, he tries desperately to buy success, friends and, most obsessively, respect. He uses Mark as his ticket to these aspirations, since he’s the only man naïve enough to endorse his odd behaviour. Their relationships devolves into Mark bounding like a blissfully unaware puppy into the arms of his master, only to be scolded by the loathsome Du Pont.
The odd couple, whose relationship errs suggestively on the homoerotic side, is one that’s mutually beneficial- Du Pont needs Mark’s success for his own as much as Mark needs Du Pont’s wealth to outdo his brother. It’s a relationship that epitomises the film’s bleak outlook on life, one where man is reduced to struggle in futility just to find a small slice of inner peace.
In stark contrast to the frustrated figures of Du Pont and Mark is the normality of Ruffalo’s Dave. Utilising Ruffalo’s reassuring everyman persona, he’s a needed beacon of calm and common sense in the increasingly erratic happenings around him. Dave soon becomes the only figure we, and Mark, can trust. He can’t be bought out, he puts his family first and he’s a genuinely morally good character. Ruffalo plays this part magnificently well, he’s the only one contented with life and that resonates with the audience in an otherwise barren and bitter environment.
If Dave is the good and Du Pont is the bad and the ugly, where does that leave Mark? Tatum is the weakest of the starring trio. He’s not terrible, but his brutish mannerisms and simple oafish self are overplayed to the extent that Mark verges on the mentally challenged. It feels like Tatum’s been taken on simply for his physique and as a result is written a part that reflects a lack of faith in the actor’s ability outside physical requirements, typified by his sparse lines of dialogue. It’s a weak underestimation from Miller rather than a fatal flaw in Foxcatcher’s grand scheme.
The story is told in unrelentingly bleak fashion, typified by the deafening lack of sound. The film almost exists in a vacuum where only one noise is allowed at a time, be that someone’s voice or just the clatter of a weights machine. There’s a desolate, eerie bleakness that resonates from the muted sounds, an ominous precedent for the increasingly dark and bizarre developments. Greig Fraser’s camerawork is long, cerebral and pensive as if the film itself is pent up with a brooding tension ready to explode. It takes a while to get into the film, but once you’re in it’s a mesmerising experience, the bizarre triangle of characters becomes a hypnotic tragedy of seething tensions.
Foxcatcher the is stern antithesis of the heroic tales of sporting underdogs. Rooted to the floor as if held by Mark’s gut wrenching holds, the film makes no effort to implore the unlikely the victory. Failure is ever present; Mark and Dave’s gold medal wins that happen before the film provide little solace as past achievements are discarded instantly. Foxcatcher seems to hit a terrifying nerve when it asks “well what now?” as if to question the very point in attempting anything in life. This harrowing message is exclaimed by an utterly crushing finale, one that induces a numbness seldom felt in cinema so boldly.
There’s so much to admire in Foxcatcher, namely the performances above all else, but you’ll be hard pushed to feel anything other than complete hopelessness as you exit the auditorium, a sure sign you’ve witnessed a great film.
9/10- The Hunt for Oscars is On
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