With Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller reveals himself as a very, very interesting director, taking genuine artistic risks in the wake of the much more commercially viable Moneyball. It’s no wonder this film was held for Cannes and not debuted in the North American festivals of last year, since its style is very European (a euphemism for 'slow', itself often a euphemism for 'boring') and not at all what one might expect from what is essentially (like Capote) a true crime story.
Instead, this is an opaque human drama with a lot to say about male relationships, which it does in a very strong and tactile way. Wrestling is a key component of the film, and Miller doesn’t back away from it, staying slightly removed and somewhat objective about the various training techniques and moves. Bulky men in leotards could so easily become camp and silly, but an excellent performance by Channing Tatum ensures the film stays grounded.
The story itself is very simple: gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum) is approached by chemicals billionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carell) to help him assemble the US team for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Schultz accepts the offer and tries to recruit his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who is initially sceptical. But as Dave comes round to the idea, Mark becomes more and more disillusioned with Du Pont, a controlling and deeply strange individual.
History tells us that this relationship didn’t end well, but Miller’s films sets up a very unusual and intimate triangular dynamic, one that is rare for a Hollywood film. Foxcatcher is mostly propelled by what it doesn’t tell us that what it does, using its core cast so beautifully – will Carell or Tatum get the Best Actor nomination? – that this is sure to be a major player come awards season.
In the foreground we have Du Pont and Mark Schultz, a pair so polar – the aloof one-per-center and the eager-to-please working man – that they bring instant subtext whenever they’re together. Then we have Du Pont and Dave Schultz, a much more fractious collaboration. But the combination that gives the film its heart is the pairing of Tatum and Ruffalo as the brothers; Mark as the bruised and vulnerable bear of a man, with the more sensible Dave acting as his trainer, mentor and, ultimately, saviour.
Some might find this oblique approach a little alienating, but, for the patient, Foxcatcher is a powerful and most likely durable film, a sinister bromance with unusual overtones of male daddy issues that seems to occupy a permanent state of winter. It will be fascinating to see where all concerned go next...