Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher does not feel like a 2014 movie. The drama chronicling the bizarre relationship that developed between the enormously wealthy and enigmatic John du Pont and a pair of world champion wrestlers, Dave and Mark Schultz, feels much more like a throwback to the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, when films moved at a slower pace and directors were more likely to challenge an audience to fill in the blanks much more than they might today.
Part of that may be due to the fact that it took Miller eight years to get the story on screen. He began researching the salacious story, now a distant memory for most who remember it at all, back in 2007 and completed the film in January of 2013. But his studio, Sony Classics, has held up release in an attempt to build up a buzz for a difficult picture. After premiering at Cannes in May, 2014, where Miller won the Best Director award, Foxcatcher has made the rounds at a number of other festivals in advance of its release in mid-November. Miller has critical pedigree, with Capote and Moneyball already on his resume. And the movie has star power, featuring three established actors – Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell, and Mark Ruffalo – who will no doubt get serious Oscar consideration. Whether it will speak to an audience weaned on superheroes and cartoons will be interesting to observe.
Miller initially developed the story in a more traditional way, emphasising the viscerally dramatic material, but as the years went by, he found himself drawn to the between-the-crack elements. After the 1984 Olympics, at which brothers Dave and Mark Schultz each won gold medals, the self-described wrestling coach, du Pont, approached Mark and offered to fund his training. Mark, eleven years younger than Dave, had long been in the shadow of his highly-respected older brother. Even the Olympic gold did little to resolve that issue, in part because he won it at the Los Angeles Games, which were boycotted by most Eastern European countries. With du Pont offering state of the art training facilities and virtually anything money could buy, Mark jumped at the chance to leave Dave’s shadow and move to du Pont’s Foxcatcher wrestling club in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Dave would later join him in preparation for the 1988 Olympic Games.
Many of the facts of what happened between the three men have been well researched and documented. But huge shadows and questions remain, and it is those shadows that most interest Miller. There was a rather serious power struggle that went on, first between Mark and du Pont, two fatherless men who were both clearly desperate for approval from a parental figure. Later, that struggle would evolve into a frantic tug of war between Dave and du Pont, with Mark as the rope in between.
Wrestling is a brutal and painful sport, as physically difficult on a second-by-second basis as any competition there is. Miller and his actors convey that clearly. (Miller said Tatum and Ruffalo, who portray Mark and Dave respectively, cried when they wrapped the final wrestling, because they were so relieved to be done with that part of the film). But Miller, along with screenwriters Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye, are even more concerned with the emotional pain and violence that this particular trio endured. The filmmaking is efficient and precise. There is a poignant moment early on when Mark speaks at a school about his journey. Despite showing off his own gold medal, he is still mistaken for his better-known older brother. His disappointment is palpable. A later moment has John du Pont attempting to impress his wheelchair-bound mother with his wrestling acumen, only to have her turn away from his display. Realising she has left, du Pont simply drifts away himself, his standard reaction to any emotional distress. The movie is largely a collection of such intimately-observed moments.
One of the reasons that the movie feels like something from the ‘60s is its relative lack of back story. We do get the occasional anecdote from someone’s past (the one du Pont tells Mark about a childhood friend is almost too painful to watch), but these are very short and virtually unobtrusive. In fact, they are so unobtrusive that when Dave explains a decision he has made to Mark by saying “Remember when we were kids …” it actually feels like one of the very few inauthentic moments in the film. This is John Cassavetes territory. Cassavetes, a maverick director back in the ‘60s, was well-known for providing minimal exposition. He never explained his character’s actions with flashback or anecdote. He simply showed how they behaved in the present. Walking out of the theatre, I heard more than one audience member ask why one character had behaved in a particular manner. I suspect that same question will be debated by all who see Foxcatcher. In a more standard 2014 movie, such a question would not be left so ambiguous. Modern American film tends to spoon-feed motivation and action. Miller resists this. If his movie is successful enough, the audience member will be able to form his or her own explanation for what has happened. If his movie fails, it will remain an impenetrable mess.
Foxcatcher’s pace is also somewhat of a throwback. I always find it interesting to look back at movies from the late ’60s and early ‘70s – especially very popular movies like The Godfather and Chinatown – and remember just how slow many of them were. Compared to 2014, where incident, action, and spectacle seem crammed into every frame, those older movies took their time. Foxcatcher takes its time. There are long, quiet moments in which we merely observe characters in isolation. Both Mark and John du Pont have awkward personalities, and Miller allows that awkwardness to stumble across his screen.
A lot has been written about the acting, especially about Tatum and Carrell who step far outside their popular personae. Ruffalo is very much at home playing the good-natured Dave, the only one of the three who has a family and a well-adjusted adult personality. Tatum, who has shown a great willingness to take on a wide range of challenges in his young career, is exceptional as Mark. The role requires great physicality, which Tatum clearly offers. He is also able to tap into Mark’s demons – his need for approval, his fear of abandonment. Maybe the most touching moment for Mark comes around the midpoint when he has taken a leadership role at Foxcatcher, directing the other wrestlers who have come to train with him. For the first time in the movie, Mark seems at ease. He seems to actually be stepping out of Dave’s shadow, just as du Pont had promised. That all gets taken away from him in an instant, and the combination of resigned defeat and smouldering resentment that Tatum captures in a mere look is chilling.
Carrell has gotten the most attention for his performance as John du Pont, perhaps because he travels furthest afield from his established character. I will admit that it is a most impressive technical performance. He is playing a man with huge gaps – pieces of him often seem missing. His halting speech, his awkwardly rigid posture, his habit of seeming to drift away at times – Carrell gets all of that extremely well. The only thing that bothered me about the performance is that I never felt much for the character. He was no doubt creepy. I think the movie may have been more involving if Miller and Carrell had found some glimmer of humanity in du Pont, some likeable aspect. I didn’t get that. That is the one area in which I felt the movie remained impenetrable.
Though I kept thinking of Cassavetes as I watched Foxcatcher, walking out I found myself thinking of another director and another movie from about forty years back. Belgian director Chantal Akerman made a film in 1975 called Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It runs over three hours and is a slow-paced, meticulous examination of its title character. It ends with one of the most devastating moments in all cinema, at least in part due to that slow, meticulous build-up. Toward the end of Foxcatcher, as the audience gasped in reaction to the climax, I couldn’t help but think that sometimes that type of slow build-up offers more lasting rewards than all the amusement park action we tend to see today. At the very least, it’s nice to get the occasional alternative.