It’s that glorious time of year when cape-led fare abates from the multiplex, to be replaced by intriguing awards films. Foxcatcher is such a thing, led by a trio of tremendous performances, although it ultimately adds up to slightly less than the sum of its formidable parts.
This is director Bennett Miller’s second sports-based true story following 2011’s Moneyball, which brought nominations but no wins for Best Actor (Brad Pitt), Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill) and Best Picture. I’d be astonished if Foxcatcher isn’t nominated in at least the exact same categories. Prior to that, Miller took Philip Seymour Hoffman to an Oscar win for Capote. He’s not yet 50 but Miller is firmly established as a director who gets the absolute best from his actors – moreso in Foxcatcher than any of his films to date.
The film is a three-hander which tells the true story of John du Pont and his involvement with the funding and training of the Schultz brothers, US wrestling Olympians. The story may not be known to UK readers – I had no idea how it would end – so I’ll stay light on the details, but John (Steve Carell) is a troubled and troubling individual, heir to the considerable du Pont family fortune, keen to be perceived as a patriotic, inspiring philanthropist, but in fact a socially awkward, insecure figure seeking validation from his mother and society at large. Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum play Dave and Mark Schultz, the former a charismatic, confident, much-loved mentor, and the latter a vulnerable, insecure younger brother. Both begin the film as Olympic gold medallists (at different weight classes) but where Dave is comfortable in his skin, happy with his lot and with his family, Mark feels isolated, unappreciated and in need of financial and emotional support. Enter du Pont, who invites Mark to train at his secluded Foxcatcher ranch.
As the least fêted of the three leads, Tatum’s performance will likely go ungarlanded so let’s start there – Channing Tatum is superbly cast and absolutely authentic, harnessing his physicality, yearning for a father figure and hopelessly vulnerable to du Pont’s charms. It’s the kind of flawless performance that should open studios’ eyes to what this actor is capable of, although completed and forthcoming work with Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino suggests that directors have already recognised his gifts. Then to Mark Ruffalo – the 46-year-old Avengers actor as a wiry wrestler? Really? More fool me for doubting him, and more evidence that Ruffalo is a member of that extremely exclusive club of versatile actors who appear to be able to do absolutely anything (other members include Jessica Chastain, Tom Hardy and Andrea Riseborough). He convinces instantly as a sportsman, and brings an easy charm and quiet charisma to the character that jars so effectively with John and Mark’s profound awkwardness. There’s a scene in which Dave is reluctantly interviewed for what’s effectively a du Pont propaganda film and bridles so understatedly at the leading questions and at the lies he’s being asked to tell – it’s masterful stuff.
The headlines in every review have focused on the revelatory performance by Steve Carell as John du Pont. Every word is true. There’ve been glimpses of Carell’s dramatic chops in films like Little Miss Sunshine but make no mistake, this was left-field casting, and Carell admits as much in interviews. His comedic persona just seemed too ingrained to move past – anyone who’s seen The Office, or the Anchorman films, surely wouldn’t be able to take him seriously. I’ve seen the Foxcatcher trailer since and it doesn’t do the film any favours: the nature of trailer-making dictates fast edits and dramatic lines, and this is a misleading representation of what Carell and Miller have accomplished. This is not Michael Scott (the American version of David Brent) doing ‘evil’ in a prosthetic nose. Carell’s performance is so restrained, so nuanced, and so much of his most chilling work is done with slight gestures, pauses, breathing and posture. du Pont never shows his true face, but Carell is magnificent at just hinting at the depths of suspicion and hatred bubbling under the surface. In trying to come up with a yardstick for how transformative he is, I looked back through some iconic performances over the last ten years, and I had to go back to Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood to find something comparable. Carell is genuinely extraordinary and should rightly be excited about awards season.
The film as a whole plays out as a study of power, jealousy and paranoia, with Mark hopelessly lost between Dave and John, until events are driven to a tragic conclusion. It’s hard to find fault with any of it, except perhaps with the story itself – although the writers were limited in part by the need to portray events as accurately as possible, that does make the film fairly bleak and hopeless, and there is little attention paid to du Pont’s backstory and motivations, which might have made it more illuminating and therefore satisfying. Of course, it doesn’t have any duty to be satisfying – this is a desperately sad story, clinically rendered. In this small respect the film isn’t quite as good as the stunning performances that anchor it, but it’s extremely potent nonetheless.
Opening on Friday 9th January, Foxcatcher is now on general release across the UK.