2014 – Eccentric multimillionaire John E. du Pont hires wrestler Mark Schultz to spearhead an increasingly disturbing and obsessive quest to win Olympic gold. Based on a true story.
Have you ever heard that people say more in their silences than they do with their actual words? If that’s true, then Foxcatcher has more to say than any film in history. The sheer number of awkward pauses is staggering. That’s not a complaint – when the characters pause, struggling to put into words the difficult, long-repressed feelings festering inside them, you find yourself agonizing right along with them. You’ll want to scream advice at the screen: “Stand up for yourself!” “Tell him how you feel!” Whatever flaws it may have, the ability to generate that kind of personal involvement makes Foxcatcher well worth seeing.
This isn’t the kind of cast I’d normally rush out to see. Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz, a former Olympic wrestler fallen on hard times and living largely in the shadow of his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Then he’s contacted by the fantastically wealthy John du Pont (Steve Carell), who gives him what he’s always wanted: confidence, a mission, and a seeming father figure.
The only word I can think of that describes this movie is “odd.” I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Many of the scenes seem to be structured to cause you as much discomfort as possible – like one in which Schultz asks to use “the commode” and then urinates while awkwardly staring at a portrait on the bathroom wall. The pee noises in the scene are unusually loud. Steve Carell was already the master of second-hand embarrassment, but you haven’t seen his real skill until you see him force another wrestler to (essentially) mount him on the floor while his elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave) watches from her wheelchair.
The atmosphere of the abnormal is build up bit by bit, one unusual event piled atop another. The characters circle each other warily, silently, like they’re engaged in a two-hour wrestling match. You know that something has got to happen eventually, but when it finally does, it comes out of nowhere and practically slams you back in your seat.
The closest thing I can compare it to is a Darren Aronofsky film a la Black Swan, but this is a step beyond even that. While it’s not a dramatic descent into insanity, it is an exceedingly disturbing meander into the weird. It’s fascinating to watch these characters trapped by the frustrations and failures of the past, unable to escape from the impending tragedy of their futures. It’ll stick with you.
Seeing Carell in a dramatic role is a surprise, but his performance as John du Pont (aided by some impressive makeup) is both sympathetic and unsettling. His strange, halting walk, his unusual speech pattern, and his half-closed eyes create an air of unease even when he’s at his most jovial. You never know quite what this man will say or do next. I’d love to have a beer and talk wrestling with Ruffalo’s character, who is almost inhumanly likable. The only real question mark, for me, was Tatum – is he acting or just sticking his lower jaw out? Are his silences intense, or was the director just pulling a “Keanu Reeves in The Matrix” and giving him as little to say as possible? I can’t tell.
Foxcatcher has some flaws – the pacing is sometimes bafflingly slow, and the story skips through great gulfs of “real life” time – but it’s a fascinating psychological journey with some solid performances.