Match points: Channing Tatum and an almost unrecognisable Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher.
"Bennett Miller has secured his place at the forefront of directors who excel at character studies."

In a masterclass at London Film Festival, director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) ruminated on how the character at the heart of his debut film The Cruise, a semi-homeless bus tour guide with a stream-of-consciousness delivery, could be seen as originating a recurring theme in his filmography: “He was a person who didn't really belong, the world wasn't right for him”. Miller’s new film continues with the focus on real-life outsider Americans who sit right on top of cultural, political and economic fault lines. Moving on from writer Truman Capote and baseball manager Billy Bean, Miller has now turned his lens to focus on wealthy US industrialist and wrestling team owner John du Pont, and he and the writing team of E Max Frye and Dan Futterman have crafted a compelling, expertly designed and well-acted observational thriller.

The plot of Foxcatcher is drawn from Miller’s research into the real-life story of the bizarre, twisted relationship between wrestling world champions Dave and Mark Schultz and their multi-millionaire benefactor du Pont, a wealthy magnate from American old money. The most fiery point of this unstable male triangle is Mark, a successful blue collar wrestler but one, as an early scene shows, who is nursing troubling thoughts beneath his hulking frame and cauliflower ears. When we first see Mark (an excellent Channing Tatum, bringing out the mix of fierceness and vulnerability behind his character) he is engaged in a wrestling bout with older brother and coach Dave (an also understated but equally impressive Mark Ruffalo) which begins like an almost comical dance given the strange poses wrestling requires. But Mark reacts increasingly violently to his brother’s guidance and physical moves, eventually viciously headbutting him.

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It seems that languishing in his confident, family-oriented brother’s shadow has become a needling pain in Mark’s soul. Tatum plays Mark as a man who’s inarticulacy about his second-rate status seems to be producing a vicious feedback effect whereby his mind has been left throbbing with all these unspoken desires and frustration - which can only come out in outbursts of violence against himself. Following the bout, Mark stands alone under a bathroom light, tapping an old injury on his forehead harder and harder until he is for all intent and purposes punching himself in the face. These early scenes between Tatum and Ruffalo establish a palpable sense of tension and unease that Miller goes on to inject into every later moment and every character interaction throughout the film. The visuals also establish a recurring motif: the ambiguity inherent in physical contact, which can be brotherly and comforting, or violent on the turn of a dime.

Mark seems to have found an escape when the wealthy and mysterious du Pont impulsively invites him to his sprawling Pennsylvania family property Foxcatcher Farms. A man of enormous wealth who has decided to set himself up as a wrestling coach and benefactor, du Pont declares that Mark can lead the next US team to glory at the 1988 Seoul games; and a handpicked team, a salary of his choice, and a high-end training facility at Foxcatcher will be his if he agrees to stay. The mysterious du Pont is played by Steve Carell, the casting of whom what has been surely the most talked about aspect about this film given Carell’s reputation as a comedy actor, and the fact that the role requires him to don a substantial amount of latex.

But this is no gimmick, as Carell truly disappears into the hunched character. He is a bizarrely mesmerising figure whose halting speech patterns, trite conservative monologues and total lack of empathy mark him out as a man impossibly warped past the point of no return by his wealth. He seems to have a non-stop steam of dignitaries from the military visit him in his ornate office decked out with eagle iconography (he likes to refer to himself as John ‘Eagle’ du Pont”), and at one point buys a tank only to rant like a child that it is missing the .50 cal machine gun. This is a man who no longer knows how to like or care for people - he can only own them.

Mark thrives initially and becomes something of a slavish worshipper of du Pont, possibly both have bonded over their shared outsider status. But over time Mark begins to become warped in ambiguous ways by his proximity to the mysterious magnate. Their relationship, and du Pont’s ultimate motives are murky. Is du Point interested in Mark sexually? Does he even care for the sport of wrestling and for the spiritual health of America, as his soulless PR statements claim? Is this some attempt to satisfy or maybe even pervert the desires of his mysterious mother, who the grounds staff speak about in hushed tones? Or, like the prize horses on his land that Mark is warned to stay away from, are the wrestlers simply prize animals to be watered and fed in between earning medals? At any rate, du Pont is soon introducing Mark to cocaine and booze, further speeding the wrestler's deterioration. When Dave is finally convinced by du Pont’s largesse to take up a place on the wrestling team, Mark’s insecurities around all these patriarchal figures and the sudden loss of du Pont’s attention, overwhelm him. But things get even more disturbing as du Pont begins to turn his attentions to Dave, a man who he can’t dominate in the same way.

As things spiral towards the abyss and the unstable male triangle gets increasingly poisonous, Miller expertly keeps the tension rising, charging every scene with ambiguity and danger to the point where this almost feels like a horror film at times, an effect enhanced by the wintry cinematography and sense of isolation. Whether it is du Pont wandering into the training hall randomly with a revolver, or the clang of weights caused by Mark’s workout interrupting a speech he is trying to give, every scene with Carell, Ruffalo and Tatum feels as though it could suddenly slide into a violent explosion. Du Pont might be a greying, shuffling figure, but Miller and Carell manage to create a huge sense of gravity around him, as if he is a black hole sucking everything towards him.

Apart from being a gripping, superbly acted and thought-provoking piece of work, Foxcatcher is one of those films which ranges over many subjects - power, families, the American Dream - without ever feeling like it is cramming too much in. With this, Bennett Miller has secured his place at the forefront of directors who excel at character studies. His next project can’t come too soon.

Reviewed on: 19 Oct 2014
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Foxcatcher packshot
The story of wrestling stars Mark and Dave Schultz and their poisonous relationship with John du Pont.
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Read more Foxcatcher reviews:

Richard Mowe ****

Director: Bennett Miller

Writer: E Max Frye, Dan Futterman

Starring: Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Steve Carell, Anthony Michael Hall

Year: 2014

Runtime: 130 minutes

Country: US

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