Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo debuted for the press this morning at Cannes. It’s a sports movie, but by no means a conventional one. Wrestling is just a canvas for Miller and his terrific cast to sketch out a series of rich and moving character portraits rather than driving the crowd-pleasing highs and lows audiences expect. This is not Rocky. It’s not another “overcoming the odds” sports drama which builds predictably to a finale of contrived uplift. It is dark and challenging, favoring honesty over good feeling, and employing grace, subtlety and quiet over bombast.
Foxcatcher tells the true story of wrestling World Champion and Olympic gold medal-winning brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Tatum and Ruffalo). The two brothers feed off each other and drive each other, but there’s a brotherly tension between them. Dave is the older and more dominant while Mark continually toils in his brother’s shadow. In the years leading up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the American wrestling program is a bit of a mess, lacking the support given in other countries when the Olympic TV cameras aren’t rolling.
Enter John Eleuthère du Pont (Carell) the multimillionaire scion of the prominent du Pont family of industrialists. Du Pont takes Mark under his philanthropic wing with designs on supporting all of USA Wrestling. It’s a dream come true for Mark, but family man Dave has serious reservations about du Pont’s intentions.
John has lived a life where he can buy everything he needs, including friends, but never the approval of his own mother. Buying himself a stable of wrestlers let him feel like a coach and leader, but mother does not approve of this “low” sport. Eventually, the mother/son conflict meets the brother/brother conflict between Mark and Dave and the results turn out to be toxic for everyone. Though Mark and John flourish at first, eventually Mark begins to feel suffocated and cut off from his family. When he finally convinces Dave to join him however, the brothers revert to their old dynamics and Mark regresses even further as the Olympic trials grow closer. John meanwhile bristles at Dave assuming the role of coach and leader.
How the whole story plays out is the stuff of record, but I didn’t really remember any of it so I won’t spoil it here. Not knowing made it even more compelling. Suffice it to say, Foxcatcher avoids all the clichés of the average sports movie (including Miller’s previous film Moneyball). For that reason, I wonder what it’s Best Picture chances might be. It’s good enough to be a contender, but it’s awfully dark and a feel-good competitor (a la The Artist or Argo or Slumdog Millionaire) could easily swoop in and steal its thunder. Anyway, it’s really way too early to even be having this conversation, isn’t it?
The important thing is that Tatum, Carell and Ruffalo are all superb. The standout is Carell whose mannerisms, body language and style of speech (rarely reverting to the comedian’s usual familiar ticks and quirks) as du Pont transcend the heavy facial prosthetics that can often be a distraction to these kinds of performances.
As for Ruffalo, he has a long history of digging deeply into relatively ordinary-seeming characters and bringing them to life and it’s no surprise he does it once again as Dave. The continually amazing thing is the subtle variation from one performance to the next.
Finally, there is Channing Tatum. Often dismissed as a pretty boy meathead, he’s nevertheless shown a facility for characterization (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Magic Mike to name just two) beyond his good looks. His character is the least flashy of the three and the most internal so he’ll probably get overlooked again, but that’s not fair. I’m assuming too Tatum has wrestling experience because to my (inexperienced) eye, he’s utterly convincing on the mat.
Director Miller deservers a share of the credit for the wonderful performances he elicits from his talented cast, but even more than that he doesn’t make a single misstep in the film. Every choice is the right one and each connects with every other to further buttress the great performances. Greig Fraser’s steely-cold photography merges seamlessly with Mychal Danna’s spare, subtle score, and Jess Gonchor’s production design. Throughout, Miller has the good sense to know when to let the film just be quiet and observe rather than trying to ram a point or an emotion in the audience’s face.
Foxcatcher was already sitting at the Oscar table sight unseen and nothing happened this morning to change that, but the surprise for me is that it’s snuck into the Palme d’Or conversation as well. I assumed it would be too mainstream to ever have a chance, but it’s challenging and smart enough to give early favorite Mr. Turner a run for its money. I don’t think it’ll happen, but at this point I won’t be stunned if it does.