So often these days during awards season distributors and Hollywood love to shower audiences with "true story" films. Often these films are biopics, period pieces, or are based on other significant historical events. It's become its own sub-genre, and these films often pressure critics and award committees to give the films heavier consideration since they are true of life. Often the films get trapped in biopic cliches that include the break-down, and the rise, fall, and re-birth formula. With Hollywood pumping out so many franchises based on comic books and youth novels, audiences and critics are often hoodwinked into thinking it's more profound than what they actually are.
Which brings me to Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher:, a film that is being billed as a "true story" movie, however it doesn't fall into the typical true story trappings and cliches. What's brilliant about "Foxcatcher" is how Bennett Miller doesn't play into the typical formulas, in fact he builds the story up with imagery, visuals, and internalizes the characters mind-state. The story is a devastating chapter in American sports history. It's a very chilling and shattering film that doesn't leave you with simple conclusions. It just unravels with deep ambiguity, and the framing and visuals build up a brooding atmosphere that echoes the work of Andrey Tarkovsky, and Lars von Trier.
"Foxcatcher" is a film that masterfully studies desire, the class system, and the co-opt of the American dream and American institutions. Channing Tatum delivers an electrifying and career defining performance as Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler who won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics. He's trapped in the wing of his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who also won a gold medal in a different weight class. Miller examines the tension and disconnect in their relationship after Mark fills in for Dave as a guest speaker for an elementary school where the school accidentally writes a $20 check to Dave instead, instead of Mark. He cashes the check, gets a burger, goes home, plays an electric game, and eats Ramen noodles. It shows he is living an isolated life that only involves wrestling.
The first encounter between Mark and Dave is brilliant. They begin their day's training, wrestling in an old gym. Their practicing ends up with routine moves, but ends up with a lot of intense emotion. It shows Dave truly loves his brother, and is pushing and encouraging him to be the best. Mark just wants to be his own man, he doesn't want to be trapped in the shadows of his brother. In this scene Miller brilliantly examines who these men really are.
Mark ends up receiving an unexpected phone from call from an assistant to millionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carrell), who end up inviting him to the Du Pont estates. The Du Pont family fortune had investments in manufacturing ammunition during World War I, and then it led to chemicals. John Du Pont has a passion and admiration for wrestling, it doesn't fit the typical hierarchy hobby like horses that his mother has a passion for. John has intentions of building his own wrestling team that he wants to take to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. John's intentions of why he does this are left with a lot of deep interpretations. Does John have a homosexual attraction to Mark? His John doing this for his own self-interest? Is he doing this for validation to his mother? Is he doing this to get both brothers into his Foxcatcher team? Either way the film raises a lot of fascinating questions that allows the viewer to come up with their own conclusions.
Steve Carell and Channing Tatum deliver top-notch , career defining performances. Carell who is completely remarkable, and unrecognizable as John Du Pont is very chilling and effective in this role. This performance deserves serious Oscar consideration for Best Actor. Mark and John build a strong friendship that becomes father-son in a way that Mark has always yearned for. Mark, who was raised by Dave didn't have a father in his life after his parents separated, which allowed Dave to become his father figure. Eventually John begins displaying strange behavior and Dave ends up seeing that he's becoming a pawn on the chess board. This allows Mark to become dissatisfied with the Team Foxcatcher and he witnesses at Foxcatcher reveals something ugly beneath the surface. That his glory is being co-opted by something disingenuous, the film brilliantly shows the facade of the American dream.
Without revealing too much, the story becomes a devastating Greek tragedy. Miller isn't interested in plot twists or building cheap suspense. He isn't interested in giving easy answers because nobody knows the answers to that story. Instead of spelling everything out, Miller wants you to experience and feel them. He wants to be trapped and meditate on the experience. The film is emotionally draining, but it leaves an impact. Miller knows how to stage the environment of the characters emotions, by using beautiful wide shots to show the characters displacement, or by showing beautifully tight compositions of close-ups, we get a glimpse of the agony these characters are enduring. One of the best scenes in the film is when Mark self-destructs and gains weight after going on a food eating binge. He must drop 12 pounds in 90 mins or else he will be eliminated in the Olympic trial tournament. His brother Dave pushes him on a stationary bike, as he is sweating away in layers of sweatshirts. It's all done visually instead of using dialogue.
Miller who directed Capote (2005) and Moneyball (2011), two other strong films based on real-life events, here has created what I feel is the best of his three movies. "Foxcatcher" is perhaps one of the greatest sports movie in years, that's really the anti-sports movie. Each character's dreams are vanished before their eyes due to the facade, and you are emotionally crushed with the outcome due to the investment Miller builds.
Rating **** out of ****