(2014) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice, Jackson Frazer, Samara Lee, Francis J. Murphy III, Jane Mowder, David Bennett, Lee Perkins, Robert Haramia, Daniel Hilt, Bryan Cook, David Zabriskie, Frederick Feeney, Alan Oppenheimer (voice). Directed by Bennett Miller
The making of a tragedy doesn’t necessarily unfold the way you’d expect. Sometimes there is a slow build in which there is a feeling of inevitability (but only when you look back). Most times it appears suddenly and without warning, turning lives and families upside down.
Mark Schultz (Tatum) is an Olympic gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling from the 1984 Olympics but that doesn’t buy many groceries. He is subsisting on ramen, wrestling practice with his brother Dave (Ruffalo) who is a coach at the local college which supports his budding family including wife Nancy (Miller). Then Mark gets a bizarre phone call from one of the richest men in America – well, one of his flunkies – John DuPont (Carell), who wants to meet with Schultz. Mark doesn’t really have anything better to do so he heads out there.
It turns out that John, a kind of diffident, odd duck of a man has a thing for wrestling. A big thing. He also has a bit of a patriotic streak. America’s wrestling program is chronically underfunded with facilities that can only be called archaic. DuPont wants to change all that, building a state-of-the-art world-class wrestling facility on his family estate, Foxcatcher Farm. Mark, who doesn’t get enthusiastic about much, is enthusiastic about this. He pleads with his brother to come on board, but Dave – who like Mark underwent a vagabond-like childhood, moving from place to place – doesn’t want to put his children through the same thing and refuses to uproot them to move to the countryside outside of Philadelphia. Mark goes it alone.
Other wrestlers are brought on board but Mark is clearly DuPont’s favorite and when Mark wins the world championships that year, DuPont is clearly thrilled, taking Mark’s success as his success. In turn, Mark looks up at DuPont as a father figure.
Things begin to go sour though. DuPont introduces Mark to cocaine and Mark soon becomes addicted, skipping out on practices and showing up high or drunk. DuPont is concerned and brings in Dave to help right the ship, but Mark is clearly in an unhealthy place. Can his brother help pull the budding superstar out of his downward spiral in time for Olympic glory in Seoul?
This is clearly a morality play, as Bennett Miller’s two previous movies have been (Capote, Moneyball) but it’s also at the same time more than that. When you look back on it after having seen it, you’ll understand that there is also a randomness to the events, none of which would spell out the conclusion. In fact, Miller suggests, life sometimes isn’t a succession from A to Z. Sometimes it leaps around and ends up at Z after having gone from C to E to Q, followed by a stint in Chinese and Arabic characters, numerals and symbols.
There is a kind of chill in the look of the film, from the stark apartment Mark lives in at the beginning, the snow-covered farm in winter, even the somewhat antiseptic look of Foxcatcher itself. John DuPont tends to bottle up his emotions, often staring into space, wanting to say something, catching himself, and saying something else. The coldness of the film is a reflection of DuPont himself, and the slow, methodical unfolding of the story is also a reflection of DuPont, who speaks in a very deliberate manner.
What stands out here more than the story are the performances. Carell has been getting Oscar buzz since the film’s festival premiere and is almost a lock to get a nomination next week and, in my opinion, deservedly so. He underplays DuPont rather than overplays him, making him kind of the ultimate straight man, prone to eccentricities and never quite sure if he’s the butt of the joke or not. He is also a very wealthy man and he is used to being treated with deference. He is also a bit of a lonely boy, having had no friends other than those his mother (Redgrave) paid for. He is desperately trying to please her, but she thinks wrestling is “low” and he thinks that horses, which she has spent her life raising and riding, are “dumb.”
More surprising (and less talked about) are the performances of Tatum and Ruffalo. Tatum, who at one time was more of a pretty boy than an actor, has delivered the best performance of his career. I have to admit, he’s been getting steadily better and here he blossoms, showing that he can be as good an actor as anyone. There’s a scene where his frustration boils over in a hotel room and, furious at himself for not turning in an acceptable effort at least as far as he’s concerned, begins slapping himself in the face before graduating to pounding his fist on the walls and eventually, smashing his head into a mirror (which was ad libbed by the way – Tatum was initially not supposed to go that far). He has a kind of simian profile and at times a thousand yard stare that is positively chilling.
Ruffalo has in many ways the toughest job of the three. Dave is likable, supportive and charismatic. He makes it clear why everyone loved Dave Schultz who knew him – and plenty of people who didn’t. In many ways it’s kind of a white bread role but Ruffalo gives it depth and meaning. He was nominated for a Supporting Actor Drama Golden Globe and has a good shot at an Oscar nomination, but at the Globes ran into the J.K. Simmons buzzsaw from Whiplash and likely will again but that doesn’t mean it’s not a powerful performance and in most any other year would be a clear Oscar favorite for the win.
Foxcatcher is a fairly dark film and might leave you feeling down, but there is something about it that carries a touch of the resilience of the human spirit. One character in particular escapes the alluring snare of Foxcatcher the training facility and ends up becoming better for it. This is definitely a movie that demands to be seen, particularly by those who are lovers of good movies, and it is definitely one of the year’s best.
REASONS TO GO: Awesome performances by Carell, Ruffalo and Tatum. No foreshadowing of final scenes which makes them even more shocking to those not familiar with the story.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe too laid-back and slow.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of drug use and one scene of disturbing violence are what got this an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The glasses that Ruffalo wears in the film are Dave Schultz’ actual glasses, given to him by Schultz’ widow Nancy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fruitvale Station
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Imitation Game