[This is a re-post of my Foxcatcher review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. The film opens today in limited release.]
For those who aspire to be champions, it’s a horrible thing to know you’ll never be the best. Successful people will engender only envy and further self-loathing. You will only see your weakness. You will live in shadows. Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is an incredibly sad and poignant portrait of two men desperate for greatness they’ll never achieve, and destroyed by the failings they’ll always feel. They can lie about confidence, achievements, and relationships, but there’s no escape. Led by astounding performances from Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo, Miller has created a quiet, brooding picture of doubt, depression, and destruction.
In 1987, wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum), who won Gold at the 1984 Olympics, is scraping by. He’s forced to take $20 speaking engagements at elementary schools. More frustrating is living in the shadow of his brother Dave (Ruffalo), a superior wrestler who receives all the admiration and respect. When Mark is summoned to the estate of the wealthy John du Pont (Carell), he’s offered the chance to train for the world championship and the 1988 Summer Olympics. Mark and John develop a kinship over their desire to win, but even victory can’t defeat their mental anguish, and it sets them, along with Dave, on a trajectory leading to tragic results.
Foxcatcher extends far beyond, “Winning is good, and losing makes people sad.” Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman are interested in what creates this mentality in the first place. You can build up the nobility of Greco-Roman wrestling, work ethic, or even, as Mark tells John, wanting “to be the best in the world.” It’s still a game and your highest reward is piece of metal tied to a ribbon. At the beginning of the movie, Mark doesn’t walk into the elementary school like a champion. Kids aren’t racing to get his autograph or excited by the medal he brought with him. He’s there because his brother was too busy to show up. For Mark and John, the psychology is far more complex than the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
While other directors might try to add more flair in an attempt to tap into the protagonists’ volatile emotional state, Miller is always subtle in his approach. There’s no flash to the cinematography or quickness in the editing. Rob Simonsen’s lovely score is distant and melancholy. The movie is a slow burn with a quiet intensity that always threatens to explode. It’s almost like there’s a low humming sound, a buzz creating a constant tension because the emotional chaos cannot be contained. It can only be suppressed, and the violence of the wrestling reminds us that it’s only a matter of time before everything breaks apart.
The sadness that permeates Foxcatcher is almost overwhelming. There’s a key distinction between a movie that’s sad and one that’s depressing. A depressing movie bums out its audience, and leaves them feeling bad about the world at large. It’s deflating and tends to boil down to the “everything is awful.” Sadness is a different. Sadness is feeling sorrow and empathy for the characters. Your heart aches for them rather than yourself. It’s a tougher emotion to earn, and Foxcatcher holds it for the entire picture.
Part of that is from Miller’s strong, thoughtful direction, but the rest comes from his lead actors. In the future, when we look back on these three careers, Foxcatcher will be among the highlights. This is a character-driven movie, but this is not a case of “most” acting. On the contrary, the amount of restraint in the performances is astonishing. Yet again, the movie is powerful without ever going big, and all three actors understand that.
Tatum continues to be one of the most exciting actors working today, and I remain astounded by how far he’s come in so little time. Three years ago, I was at Sundance talking to people who were thinking about going to see Son of No One, and I said, “Channing Tatum has the charisma of yogurt.” I felt like he was being pushed on us because he was another pretty boy. But in 2012, it’s like he became an entirely different person. His energy lit up his roles in 21 Jump Street, Magic Mike, and White House Down. He had become one of my favorite actors.
This is all to say that Tatum’s work in Foxcatcher isn’t just the best performance I’ve seen from him. This is easily one of the best performances of the year. The amount of pain, hurt, anger, jealousy, and rage bubbling beneath the surface is breathtaking. He screams volumes with his lumbering body language, clenched jaw, and Mark’s true form of emotional expression, wrestling. Mark doesn’t have words; he has his body, and it’s a body built for physical domination. The effect Tatum gets by glaring in a mirror feels like he’s been giving this kind of powerhouse performance far longer than the last two years. After Foxcatcher, I’m confident he’ll be giving them for years and years to come.
Moving on to Carell, this is not a performance that relies on makeup or doing a good impression. He’s unrecognizable not because he’s beneath a prosthetic nose, wearing a set of undersized false teeth, and talking in an unusual voice. It’s because he’s embodying a character who is pathetic, entitled, creepy, and delusional. The soft cadence and slight pauses in John’s speech aren’t just an affectation. They make him utterly captivating because it’s part of an honest performance. Carell realizes that John and Mark bond not just because they want to win, but because they’re both lonely and feel inferior to a close family member; in John’s case, it’s to his mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), who is more interested in horses than any of her son’s achievements. For John, the best he can do is to buy the admiration of employees and rattle off superlatives and accomplishments like a child begging to be loved.
Finally, there’s Ruffalo, and I don’t know what more can be said about him. He is one of the best, most reliable actors working today, and Foxcatcher illustrates one of the many reasons why: his generosity. Mark and John are juicy characters. They’re deeply damaged and Dave is normal. He’s a family man, a great wrestler, and has all the admiration Mark and John crave. But Ruffalo makes Dave more than the straight man. He gives Tatum and Carell room to shine rather than compete for the scenes. The best actors understand that they’re part of a larger work, and Ruffalo is an incredible actors. He makes Dave warm, thoughtful, and compassionate, but never boring.
Not enough movies can handle emotional complexities without grandiose actions. They don’t trust audiences to hold two conflicting ideas in their head like John du Pont being creepy but not outright despicable. And for a nation that loves to see underdogs become winners, it’s unusual to see a story featuring competition but focused on two men who know that they will never receive the kind of love and respect they so desperately crave. It’s not particularly pleasant, but it is incredibly powerful. Foxcatcher is a solemn victory.