Foxcatcher is Frustrating

Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in “Foxcatcher”

     Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” based on the true story of Olympic gold wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz and their relationship with wealthy heir John DuPont, the man who would murder Dave, is a bit of an enigma. Let’s get the metaphors out of the way: the fox is the “why,” and the movie doesn’t catch it, because after two hours in a movie theater I still don’t understand why DuPont killed Dave Schultz. Perhaps that’s appropriate considering police never detected a concrete motive in the case, but then why make this movie? Presumably it’s to expose or glean some sort of truth, but within this movie these very talented people concocted, no truth is found. What little an audience can glean seems to have been, according to Mark Schultz himself, completely fictional. It’s as if Miller is withholding any proper detail that would make all of this make a little sense. Nevertheless, formal beauty, an unnerving tone, and fine performances prevent this rather vague, quiet picture from being anything other than watchable for the average film nerd.

     Critics have been pushing the narrative that this film is about the decayed decadence of inherited wealth, equating DuPont’s moral rectitude with his material success, telling a tale of the dangers of unchecked privilege. With minor exceptions, these ideas aren’t evident at even their most basic understanding. While the dichotomy between a hard-working but poor Olympic athlete and an unaccomplished but rich family heir is interesting, it doesn’t suggest any grand statement being made. If there is a statement being made, a confluence of themes I’m simply not picking up on, then it’s been muted to the point of futility. Beyond few flourishes to DuPont’s character, any thematic relevance is unfounded. This isn’t a story about American wealth, this is a story about two ambitious wrestlers and the weirdo rich guy they unfortunately partnered with in the pursuit of glory, as it should be. I normally don’t care for criticisms based on historical accuracy, but in the case of such a specific story like this one, specifics matter. When the film is drawing a line between DuPont and Mark’s dissolving friendship and the eventual murder of his brother, it matters that Mark and DuPont never shared a meaningful bond to begin with, and the artistic license taken with Mark Schultz’s character undermines credibility.

     Despite these inaccuracies, what the film does excel at is exploring man’s need for validation, be it from society or from a paternal or maternal figure. Mark, having lived in his brother’s shadow for most of his life, seeks validation from the father he never had, and finds it in the worst possible place: a man who uses people for self-glorification. DuPont produces a documentary on his estate’s wrestling compound in the service of his own pedestal, not the work done and being done by Dave, his “assistant” coach. He isn’t defined by his wealth so much as his lifelong insularity, in part due to an unhealthy attachment to his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) whom he seeks approval from to no avail. Sporting a prosthetic nose, mottled skin, and a thousand-yard stare of creepy proportions, comedian Steve Carell is impressive if not revelatory playing against type. His subtle performance gives even fewer hints than the script does as to the nature of DuPont’s madness, both actor and director seemingly not invested in exploring the nuances of the man’s reportedly schizophrenic behavior.

     On the flip side, Channing Tatum conveys all of the foibles, follies, and insecurities of Mark’s sensitive meathead without so much as a monologue or a moment of psychoanalyzing, regardless of the real person behind the pretend (hint: he wasn’t a sensitive meathead). However, like the real Mark, Tatum portrays the character’s bruised ego following a loss with repeated self-inflicted blows and even headbutting a mirror not once but thrice. Witness Tatum’s actual blood and you’ll witness acting worthy of a first Oscar nomination. As the amiable and more socially adjusted Dave, Mark Ruffalo gives one of the better performances of his career, carrying a brother’s love and a skeptic’s spice to the role of a man who’s just barely willing to let DuPont hog the glory. He’s won the medals, he’s heard the accolades, he has a family now. He doesn’t it need any more. But when tasked with touting DuPont’s laurels for his documentary, he wrestles with such touting, with calling the man his “mentor.” It’s an unbroken take, and possibly the best scene in the film as it most encapsulates the otherwise uncertain dynamics between himself and John.

     Mark and Dave are DuPont’s prized pets, until they’re not, and these shifting alliances come and go without much explanation. If we’re to chalk it up to mental illness, then more psychological study was pertinent. Bennett Miller exacts a pall of dread over the entire film to enthralling if monotonous effect, and, intentional or not, it’s difficult to come away without some homoerotic interpretation of Mark and John’s friendship, something that’s not only untrue but completely unnecessary to the story at hand. By the end, it’s also difficult to come away without some appreciation for Miller’s craft and his ability to invite the audience into a decidedly uninviting world. There are worse things than directing a film that requires five paragraphs from a freshman blogger, no matter how frustratingly enigmatic that film might be. “Foxcatcher” doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding why John DuPont killed Dave Schultz, but it does bring us closer to a group of talented, typically unheralded actors.

Grade: B

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