Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher arrives on UK screens bearing two distinct advantages: a heightened level of post-Cannes, pre-Oscar buzz, and an unsettling true story of which few viewers will have been aware. Like several current cinematic talking points (The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash), it’s about men, and the smart and dumb things we choose to do with our bodies, but this is the first of the crop to really dig its elbows and fingernails in, and properly grapple with the violence at its core.
The subject is competitive wrestling of the Greco-Roman variety, but Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye’s script is as focused on those powerplays that go on beyond the mat – much as Miller’s terrific Moneyball used baseball to dramatise something bigger about the ways of the world. In 1987, three years after his gold-medal triumph at the L.A. Olympics, wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) was contacted by John du Pont (Steve Carell), with a big money offer to install himself and his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) in the textile heir’s remote Foxcatcher ranch and help mould the next generation of wrestling talent.
As you can’t miss from Tatum’s Neolithic jawline, Mark was rather an unshaped hunk of beef himself. Sitting cross-legged in front of a TV pumping out du Pont family propaganda, he’s a picture of spongey innocence; there’s even something Rebecca-like in the way he’s loomed over in his new quarters by forbidding portraits of du Pont’s aged mama (Vanessa Redgrave, very effective), who regards wrestling as “a low sport” and whose mounting frailty seems to be the thing her son fears most.
At any rate, he submits altogether dumbly to this very corporate form of control – unlike his more independently minded brother, who actively steps back from du Pont’s offers of megabucks in order to coach the national team and raise a family. Here are three men locked in what would prove a clammy, and eventually deadly conflict; Miller has taken the father-son, mentor-protégé dynamic central to so much American cinema, overthrown all its certainties, and forced it into submission. Whatever this story shows or tells us, it ain’t healthy.
Miller’s interest lies not in the obvious muscle, but the underlying tissue of detail, right from the opening’s boldly quiet assertion of what it might be like for an athlete to have to descend from Mount Olympus. We spot why Mark might have been seduced by du Pont’s largesse, but also that du Pont was deeply weird, a man whose eccentricities – his rants at mommy dearest, his gun fetish, his desire to be referred to as “Golden Eagle” – were only heightened in seclusion. (Such shelter – the creation of a world within which all manner of fucked-up behaviour can be normalised – may be the ultimate privilege.)
In du Pont’s first meeting with Mark, naturally held in the host’s glittering trophy room, Miller leaves in every last awkward pause: the dead air allows us to study just how uncomfortable these two emotionally stunted men are around one another, as well as Carell’s jolting physiognomy, radically altered by the most prominent prosthetic proboscis since Nicole Kidman’s Virginia Woolf in The Hours.
Though Ruffalo and Tatum effectuate laudable transformations, Carell’s may be the most impressive, a work of total immersion comparable to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as Truman Capote in this director’s breakthrough feature. No more Mr. Nice, no more Mr. Normal: Carell’s du Pont is a sickly, bloodless blank who regards the Schultzes as he would any other investment, yet keeps his true agenda hidden behind the psychological equivalent of a confidentiality clause, at least until the closing minutes.
In its wintry denouement, Foxcatcher begins to feel more like an informed supposition along In Cold Blood lines – an attempt to tessellate the jagged and senseless pieces of the official record – but one senses this is a film that will only increase in pertinence as more abuses of power come to light. On these shores, Miller’s piercingly acute film will assume an additional chill from a simple (and almost certainly coincidental) costume choice: in du Pont’s gaudy, golden Team Foxcatcher leisurewear, might we not catch a glimmer of Jimmy Savile’s wardrobe, and the dread secrets fixed within it?
(MovieMail, January 2015)
Foxcatcher screens on BBC2 tonight at 9pm.