With a gormless frown permanently etched onto his face and hand movements that suggest somebody lower down on the evolutionary chain, gold-medal winning Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz tries to tell an uninterested assembly hall of kids about his proudest achievement. He articulates his words like a caveman discovering language for the first time, and holds his medal up in the air like the ape at the start of 2001 holding up a bone. Like the caveman he so often acts like, he’s a relic of the past – one who nobody seems interested in and nobody that you would go out of your way to listen to. He’s a gold-medal winning Olympic athlete whose life has stalled rather than taken off, whilst his brother Dave (who he shared the gold medal with) has seen his life go from proud moment to proud moment. Dave has a wife and two happy, healthy kids to spend his wasted hours with; Mark hides in plain view at fast food restaurants, or stays at home playing crappy videogames. The year is 1987 and their lives are about to change dramatically.
Mark gets a phone call from the estate of eccentric millionaire John Du Pont, who wants Mark to come and train wrestlers at his Foxcatcher farm estate for the 1988 Olympics. Du Pont is a former wrestler himself, which leads to rapid self-loathing due to his mother’s contempt for such a “dirty” sport. Undeterred, he still insists Mark come and stay at his estate – he argues that society these days doesn’t look up to athletes the way it should do and Olympic success should change that. Foxcatcher is a film about three men who are broken in completely different ways, chasing the kind of success and approval that will always remain distant to them, like the green light that remains forever out of Jay Gatsby’s reach.
Director Bennett Miller has built a reputation for himself as a director of middlebrow biopics that are undeniably well-acted but incredibly forgettable after viewing – I found the most memorable thing about his previous film Moneyball was an inspired gag in a recent episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Foxcatcher shares his previous films’ traits of delivering solid performances from actors who you didn’t realise were capable of such stellar work; however, I’m not talking about Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo, who as Du Pont and Dave Schultz deliver the solid performances we expect from them and have received all the awards attention. Somewhat unpredictably, the best performance here is from Channing Tatum, who over the past few years has graduated from dance movie/ romantic drama purgatory into respectable leading man territory, with no little help from directors of the Soderbergh and Lord/Miller calibre.
Tatum delivers the best performance of his career as Mark Schultz, one that has somewhat inexplicably gone ignored in favour of the showier performances Carell and Ruffalo deliver. Like Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter, his performance is the best thing in the film because it grounds the movie in reality whilst the other members of the cast turn their acting up to eleven. In previous years this type of performance was known as “The Marlon Brando performance”, but due to the lower standards of our generation it is now more commonly known as “The Ryan Gosling performance” – an actor who engulfs the entire screen despite playing the role with a quiet intensity.
As a director, Miller has finally found his voice. His previous films put aside anything resembling a distinctive authorial stamp in order to focus more on getting his actors to deliver strong performances. Here, he avoids the conventional biopic route that he has travelled down on his previous two features, instead making a quiet biopic that seems to upend stereotypical biopic structure even as it is closely following the real life events. None of the events appear to be over-dramatised, with even the most horrific events happening in such a realistic and understated way that they don’t properly resonate until much later. Naturally, this will lead to many people describing the portrayal of the “event” the narrative leads up to as anti-climactic. To me, it was commendable that it happened in such an understated way. After being put through the wringer for the previous two hours, it was a relief when the truly fucked-up shit started happening.
The most obvious comparison piece isn’t another sports movie, but actually Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 masterpiece The Master. That movie used the familiarities of organised religion to examine the disturbing and increasingly homoerotic relationship between two lost souls (played by Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman) set adrift in the post-war period. The relationship between Mark and Du Pont (or the performances by Tatum and Carell) is never as complex as the one in that movie, yet Miller makes the most out of exploring the weird mechanics of it. One scene I’m surprised I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere appears to depict a late night wrestling practice between Mark and Du Pont – yet the lack of lighting in the scene makes it unclear whether they are wrestling or actually fucking, whilst Miller doesn’t cut to another scene for a worryingly long time, making us instead sit there and try to contemplate this bizarre relationship. As well as being a well-done scene, it was also a welcome reminder of the episode of South Park where the wrestling coach gets fired from the school due to the style of his “real wrestling”.
I’m not the biggest fan of biopics or sports movies, but Bennett Miller has truly excelled by taking an unconventional look at the story. He has made his first step on the path towards becoming a director with a distinctive voice.