Starring- Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave
Director- Bennett Miller
R- some drug use and a scene of violence
I guess I get to be in the minority on this one — I didn’t like Foxcatcher. Truth be told, I found it irritating and a bit silly. I’m a fan of almost everyone involved, but sometimes, it just doesn’t come together like it should. That’s the feeling I have about Foxcatcher in general — that there are a lot of good and/or potentially ideas here, but almost none of them connect.
It’s based on a true story from the late 1980s — one of those sensational “true crime” stories that immediately grabbed headlines when it happened. Brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) — both Olympic gold medalists in wrestling — were recruited to join Team Foxcatcher, sponsored by millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell), to train for the 1988 games in Seoul. What started as an odd and uncomfortable but workable partnership soon turned tense and then deadly.
Despite my negative feelings, I don’t necessarily think of Foxcatcher as a terrible movie. You can see the shape of a good one, maybe even a great one, buried underneath everything. What ultimately kills it is a sense of complete miscalculation about almost every element, from the cast to the themes to the tone and everything in between.
Its chief problem is this — more than any other movie I’ve seen recently, Foxcatcher feels like people telling a story about something they don’t really understand and capturing it in this way that’s just enough off the truth that it becomes weirdly comic against the backdrop of deadly seriousness that the film adopts. This movie is like an especially dark comedy that doesn’t feel as though it was at all intended to be one.
I think that’s noticeable in the casting more than anywhere else. I really don’t like Steve Carell in this part. I know that seems hypocritical coming from me; I’ve been clamoring for him to try something more dramatic for years now. I’d still like for him to test his boundaries, but it’s becoming clear to me that his dramatic roles still need to be somewhat near his persona. Otherwise, there’s strain. His work as the eccentric, mentally unwell John du Pont is Capital-A ACTING — something just about everyone in this movie is doing, for what it’s worth — and it’s incredibly distracting. He has the posture and appearance of a stork; du Pont stands perfectly at attention, his gaze seemingly always fixed a foot or two above the heads of the people he’s talking to, his egregious fake nose poking out into the empty air like a cartoon character. His speech is littered with self-aware pauses, jumbled words, and general awkwardness. Whatever acting he does that’s actually impressive — and there definitely is some — feels restricted by all the makeup he’s wearing. He looks like he’s made of rubber and plastic. Yes, the real John du Pont had a big nose, but it was identifiably a nose, not a dysfunctional bird’s beak that just hung out on his face and never, ever moved.
I don’t like Channing Tatum in his part either. I suppose his work is largely serviceable, at least in getting basic emotions across. At the same time, this is the hardest he’s ever tried to play a character that isn’t an immediate extension of himself, and the seams are very visible. He does all right when he’s able to convey emotions with words, but in those scenes where he’s silently doing mundane, everyday things but trying to do them the way Mark Schultz would do them, the mental calculation behind it is all you notice. He adopts this forced glower and seems to be jutting out his chin as far as it will go, almost always with his mouth hanging open just slightly.
The worst of it is the walk. I’ll be up front with you — this is one of those things that bugs me a lot more than it should. On a list of things that could go wrong with a movie, “one of the characters walks stupid” is probably toward the back. But every time Tatum did it in this movie — which is to say, any scene where he wasn’t sitting down — it became the only thing I was capable of noticing. You know how you walk in the winter when it’s really icy outside? Yeah, picture that except always. Tatum spends the entire movie shambling around like a gorilla, bent slightly forward as if ready to start dragging his knuckles, too. I’ve been around wrestlers; they do have a certain gait that’s specific to them. It is not this. The whole thing — Carell and Tatum alike — feels like an imitation, almost a parody, of a subset of humanity the people making this movie don’t actually know very well.
The only member of the main cast with whom I take no significant issue is Mark Ruffalo. He’s doing the same goofy shuffle walk (which makes me think that was probably Bennett Miller’s call and not Ruffalo’s or Tatum’s), but his character comes the closest of the bunch to seeming like an actual human being. There’s a scene where his acting really shines — he’s being interviewed for a documentary made mainly to saint du Pont, and you can see in the awkwardness of the reaction the way that his own ego, his hidden suspicion that du Pont is actually incompetent and childish, and his desire to remain employed all factor into his responses to the filmmaker’s questions.
Then, there’s the tone of the film. I think that even if it were possible for me to take these characters seriously, I would still be put off by the monotone darkness of this movie. I have a similar principle with horror movies — the scary situation doesn’t work half as well if the world surrounding the characters knows they’re in a horror movie before they do. Foxcatcher is a film that knows its events are going to end in tragedy a long, long time before the characters begin to develop the same worry. I have softened a bit on how loose I think the tone ought to be — the fact that Foxcatcher’s environments are gray and morose from the outset doesn’t bother me in itself. That’s a technique that can build tension when it’s done right, sort of like when you let the audience know the killer is in the room but the victim isn’t aware yet. What bothers me is that the characters seem to grasp this on some level, too. Their complete humorlessness, their complete lack of identity outside of their immediate wants and needs, their over-the-top intensity, all of it signals that the movie is Important and Serious but does nothing to actually paint a picture of a relatable human situation. Scene-to-scene, the characters behave largely the same, as does the world that surrounds them. It’s like watching the same five minutes on a loop for two hours. It’s a story completely lost in its own grimness.
Even on a thematic level, the film seems half-baked. There’s obviously a lot of speculation going on here — a lot of the real-life players in this twisted saga are dead now, so you can’t ask them what they were thinking and feeling. And Foxcatcher could hardly be called a surface-level recreation of the historical record and nothing else. It’s digging its claws deep into the relationship between du Pont and the brothers, trying to figure out what went right enough for it to begin in the first place and what went wrong that caused it to end in such uncommon tragedy. There are a lot of ways to explore that dynamic and a lot of things that might have caused any one of these people to do what they did. I’m not even going to say that the answer the film posits — that du Pont was essentially a product of the corruptive power of money and greed — is the wrong one. Still, it does seem like the easy one. If you had five minutes to come up with an angle for a story where a rich person abuses the less powerful, “money messed him up” is probably the first thing you’d throw out there.
I do think the film arrives at something that’s almost interesting where du Pont is concerned — that his speeches about virtues and courage and patriotism are actually a front for his own desperate need to be approved of, something that becomes clearer and clearer as Team Foxcatcher slips further out of his control. It’s not so much that money has rendered him greedy as that it has sheltered him from normalcy — from the relationships and activities of common people. He’s a guy who was born rich and has never meaningfully worked for anything. To some extent, he knows that, and he sees this as a way of finally escaping his suspended adolescence and doing something that makes people proud of him for what he did rather than what he inherited.
But then, the movie essentially reduces this to “mommy issues,” and I’m back to finding everything kind of silly again. And despite its handful of insights into this fictionalized version of John du Pont, the film still leaves its major thematic threads dangling — there’s a whole lot of bloviating about capitalism and restoring morals to the country and patriotism and America that seems like it’s supposed to make some kind of point but never really does (mainly because all of it turns out to be a mask for du Pont’s childishness and dependency).
There’s something about the film, though, that almost works dramatically, once you muscle your way past the wonky performances, deadly self-seriousness, and thematic obviousness. It takes a while to get going — the first half of the movie consists mainly of conversations between Mark and du Pont, two characters who have absolutely no chemistry whatsoever on-screen. But once it finally introduces the rivalry between Mark and Dave and begins to pull back the layers of du Pont’s façade, the film starts to become tense and chilly in the way it’s intended to be from the opening scene. Once those elements are in play, you can actually see the characters changing and developing conflicts. Du Pont’s transition from eccentricity to madness is something that actually builds well and is unsettling in exactly the way it intends.
The effect is a two-hour movie that’s entertaining for largely the last half hour but boring and a touch goofy for the rest of its run-time. And that’s a shame, because I like Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum has started to win me over lately, and I think you could make a good argument that Bennett Miller’s Capote was the best film of its year. Sometimes, I suppose, it just doesn’t work out. Unfortunately, Foxcatcher is one of those times.