Good movies nail the big moments. Really good movies also nail the small ones.
There’s a scene early in Foxcatcher where brothers and Olympic champion wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz, played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, respectively, meet for training. It’s an almost wordless scene that starts slowly as they go through warmup drills. They move through clearly familiar patterns as they help one another get loose and eventually go into increasingly intense drills. It’s a scene that’s all about wrestling, but watching them interact, it tells you everything you need to know about the relationship between these two men more intimately than an hour of exposition could.
Foxcatcher is a really good movie, one that’s probably going to end up among my favorites of the year. Moneyball and Capote were both quality films, but with Foxcatcher it feels like director Bennett Miller has found another gear. Along with Tatum and Ruffalo, the movie stars Steve Carell as billionaire John du Pont, wrestling aficionado and their eventual patron, and the movie revolves around these three characters. It’s here that I’ll wager most people will find one of their biggest gripes with the movie. It’s hard to say that any one of these three takes center stage in the movie; rather, they fight for leading duties, with ambition and personality and force of will battling for supremacy within the triumvirate. And the plot is happy to let them duel it out. Some of the movie belongs to Mark; other parts are undoubtedly John’s; and without question, Dave finds places to assert himself as well.
That’s probably going to rub some people the wrong way, but for me, it was one of the movie’s best traits. In a story about evolving relationships and characters trying to enforce their own notion of what’s best for themselves and for one another, the fluidity afforded to the plot is what makes it all tick. Mark is jealous of the notoriety of his more put-together older brother. Du Pont comes along at a time perfect for preying on that jealousy. Dave wants to protect his younger brother. It’s heartbreaking to watch Mark reject the nurturing influence of Dave out of nothing but pride, but equally heartbreaking to watch du Pont flail about for a sense of significance and accomplishment within his own pampered life.
This gets at another one of the big reasons that Foxcatcher is so good. The narrative and the thematic significance of the story directly support one another without either becoming subservient to the other. Which is mostly just a more precise way of saying, “Damn, that’s entertaining. And meaningful, too!” The narrative knows exactly what it is: a story about two brothers who are wrestlers and their training sponsor. It doesn’t try to make things much more complicated than that. There’s going to be plenty here for someone who doesn’t care a whit about wrestling and just wants a good character drama, but it’ll be better if you have some understanding of the sport. Wrestling is important, but it’s also the window dressing for a power play drama among three men who are each wielding a different type of influence.
The movie uses this to talk, perhaps most meaningfully, about the entitlements of wealth and the character (speaking here of moral uprightness, not of fictionalized players in a story) built by hard work. More broadly, though, it’s not reductionist to say that Foxcatcher is probing human happiness. John has all the possessions in the world. Dave has a family and the personality for a promising coaching career now that he’s on the back end of his own competitive one. Mark is by far the least contented person in the movie, hounded by insecurities about his own self-worth. And all three are driven by the quest for greatness, for gold medals, for significance. Foxcatcher draws out meaning by testing the way each man adapts to new trials. The strategies of each, particularly in conjunction with his situation and resources, are telling.
And behind these men are three very strong performances. It’s easy to write off Channing Tatum’s brooding as Mark as a lack of range, but to me it felt more like an honest embodiment of his character, a character that needed restraint to avoid parody, and it makes the moments where Mark does lose control all the more powerful. Attributing backlash felt against Mark’s idiocy and personal shortcomings to Tatum doesn’t get at the root of the issue. Still, it’s true that both Ruffalo and Carell are more fun to watch. Ruffalo brings out the familial relationship to Mark by mirroring Tatum’s intensity and then channeling it into a man who will never back down but is endlessly positive. He creates the kind of older brother we all wish we had, and as with the example I gave at the top, Dave’s fraternal affection for Mark is evident in every action.
It is Carell’s performance, though, which is both the flashiest and the one which is most likely to continue receiving attention in the coming months. Of course, it’s already been the center of attention for more than a year now, with the comedian trussed up almost beyond recognition in both prosthetics and the unsettling personality of John du Pont. As much as John’s competition is against Mark and Dave, it seems Carell is rubbing against the script (not to mention the reality) that makes du Pont the villain. He’s endlessly humanizing John as a man simply in search of acceptance, and all the while Miller directs him as a man who misappropriates the vast resources at his disposal, or at least does the right thing for all the wrong reasons. It’s a friction that creates fire. Rest assured, this is not Michael Scott prancing around a serious movie, but an accomplished actor subsuming himself into a complex role.
If there’s anything I do level at Foxcatcher that holds it back, it is the ending. As much as I enjoyed the fluidity of the script’s focus, I do think Mark fades a little too far into the background through the final third of the movie. As he deals with some very serious behavioral issues, I wished to see Dave’s influence, or lack of ability to influence, more strongly. There’s still a great build between Dave and John, and the climax is excellent, but the final scene seems more a half-measure summation than an ending befitting such a beautifully characterized movie.
The Verdict: 5 out of 5
Foxcatcher may not be a standout hit to everyone, but it was for me; moreover, it’s of a resonant quality that will transcend audience dividing elements like the subject matter – world-class competitive wrestling – and an interesting plot structure that fits the story being told but could feel strange to some. On the back of first-class directing from Bennett Miller and three excellent performances led by a type-shattering turn by Steve Carell, Foxcatcher knows how to land the small, intimate moments, and it absolutely belongs in the conversation about the upper echelon of films released this year.