DIR: Bennett Miller • WRI: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman • PRO: Anthony Bregman, Megan Ellison, Jon Kilik, Bennett Miller • DOP: Greig Fraser • ED: Jay Cassidy, Stuart Levy, Conor O’Neill • DES: Jess Gonchor • MUS: Rob Simonsen • CAST: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo
There is a scene toward the beginning of Foxcatcher, the sports drama about wrestling star Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his relationship with troubled millionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carrell), that neatly encapsulates the depth of the film.
Mark grapples with his brother Dave, whom he is eclipsed and overshadowed by in the wrestling world. They playfully twist and turn, circling around and clambering at one another. On one level, it is a friendly spar between two close brothers and competitors who respect one another’s skill.
But in each spirited stretch there is a kind of simmering tension and a sense of unease. The careful observer sees the frustration in every lock and the jealously in each hold. Eventually it boils over and Mark delivers a headbutt that causes Dave’s nose to gush blood. Dave shrugs it off, but the illusion of friendly sibling competition is over.
Foxcatcher trades blows under the friendly veneer of a sports drama, but once you watch its movements more carefully you pick out its real passions and concerns: masculinity, identity, legacy and one of the most insightful looks into post-war American politics you’re likely to see in a film about greased-up beefcakes grappling at one another sensually.
Foxcatcher is based on a shocking true story. It concerns Olympic gold medalist in wrestling Mark Schultz who is promised fame and glory by millionaire John Du Pont if Schultz will join and champion Du Pont’s private wrestling team, based at his home on Foxcatcher farm, which he hopes will become the base for the sport of wrestling in the United States. Their relationship ends in violence, brought on by du Pont’s simmering schizophrenia.
As we meet Mark, he is a young man whose bright determination is forever dimmed by the shadow of his brother’s greater success. He is mistaken for his brother as he plods through a motivational speech to a group of bored looking children and his frustration is evident later, his annoyance painted in vibrant streaks of blood across his brother’s face.
In many ways Du Pont faces a similar dilemma. He is the heir to the du Pont millions, mountains of cash built with munitions and artillery. He deifies his forefathers, while still evidently feeling frustrated by the comfortable, lavish existence their work has given to him. He disdains the snobbishness and notions of class that come with it. This conflict is epitomised by Du Pont’s mother, an “old money” type who regards only the elegant equestrian sports as befitting the pedigree of her great family, regarding her son’s enthusiasm for wrestling as a sort of brutish, filthy, animal occupation.
And so, after a phone call, Mark journeys to meet Mr Du Pont who seems to have everything Mark has ever looked for. As the pampered rich boy talks of regaining America’s glory and masculine, pioneer toughness, Schultz eats it right up. Du Pont will employ him to make America a “shining city on the hill” again, and perhaps in the process some of that shining light might thrust him from his brother’s long shadow.
Foxcatcher is, in so many ways, a restrained film. Given the true story’s violent conclusion, the cinematic adaptation could have been a vicious and lurid thing, depicting Du Pont as a man overflowing with entertaining insanity, a vision of mental illness like a clown at a circus.
But the way the film handles it is so much more compelling. Its cinematography is tight and controlled. Its performances are, for the most part, quiet and deliberate and all the more menacing for those qualities. Du Pont’s troubled psyche, as he strolls into his gym with a pistol and requests that his athletes refer to him as “Golden Eagle”, is not a grand, flashy fireworks display but a slow, corrosive burn. Steve Carrell, an actor who I ordinarily have little time for, is truly excellent as the nasal, slight yet sinister Du Pont.
The film is really an opportunity for its actors to flash their talent. Tatum proves once more he is far more than just something for the ladies of the audience to stare at, with a performance that perfectly captures all the arrogance and anger that testosterone pumping through your blood tends to inspire and especially in a field as machismo-dominated as professional wrestling. If Du Pont and Schultz represent unbridled American Machismo, then Ruffalo’s Dave turns the spotlight on its Latin American counterpart: Caballerismo. He is tough and yet at the same time warm-hearted and responsible, powerful without needing to exercise that power to harm others. Ultimately the film is a collision of these two visions of masculinity, a restrained compassion endorsed by a gentle giant and a violent glory expounded on by a weak, anemic rich kid.
The film’s music seems to emphasise the conflict in du Pont’s psyche between his refined upbringing and his vision of traditional strength. The score alternates between delicate stringed instruments and the rich, pounding heartbeats of drums that seem to signal war.
In much the same way that Rocky VI was the Cold War writ large in a boxing ring, Foxcatcher paints a much grimmer portrait of American domestic politics of the age, daubing its red, white and blue shades on the wrestling mat. So many of du Pont’s inspiring soundbites about “National Glory” and “Honour” and “Strength” could be ripped word for word from the speeches of Ronald Regan and other American Neoconservatives of his day, who wanted to see a new dawn of a tough, brave and essentially macho America. This grim vision of the ’80s is only completed by a scene where du Pont instructs Schultz in the right way to praise the millionaire as the two snort cocaine on their way to a formal dinner.
Foxcatcher is about wrestling with the past, about wrestling with our legacies and where we come from, about wrestling with who we used to be or who people perceive us as, and about wrestling with an old political and cultural world we think we can throw away. Foxcatcher is a film about manning up and stepping out of the shadows. But it’s also about what happens when the only part of yourself you can reach out of those shadows is a fist.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Foxcatcher is released 9th January 2015.