Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are all transformed for this Oscar-nominated wrestling thriller.
In wrestling – of the competitive rather than staged variety – combatants trade in proximity, physicality and supremacy. They come in close, sizing up each other’s strengths through grabbing and grappling, and then exploiting weaknesses for their own glory. Sudden moves may be made, but little happens quickly. It takes time to push and shove into positions of power, and to feel out avenues for domination.
Telling a tale of violence and sought-after victory that can only be ripped from reality, Foxcatcher mimics the sport at its centre, progressing slowly yet never relenting from its atmosphere of tension. Three men jostle for the spotlight: the Olympic Gold medal-winning Schultz brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo), and wealthy and eccentric wrestling aficionado John E. du Pont (Steve Carell).
Though both siblings shared success at the Los Angeles games in 1984, the awkward, lonely Mark remains in the shadow of charismatic family man Dave, their training sessions the highlights of his daily routine. Du Pont’s unexpected offer to finance his – and the American wrestling team’s – repeat shot at the top spot is the opportunity Mark has been waiting for, but his second chance serves his benefactor’s ego, not his own dreams. As Dave asks when Mark tries to convince him to come along at du Pont’s urging, “What does he get out of all this?”
The outcome is the stuff crime reenactments are made of; however, 2014 Cannes Film Festival best director recipient Bennett Miller heightens the simmering anxiety of clashing personalities and motivations over the sensationalist result. Those familiar with the filmmaker’s previous two efforts, fellow true crime feature Capote and the baseball-oriented Moneyball, will be well versed in his approach. Once more, Miller’s film is studied and sparse on the surface but explosive underneath; inspired by history but unafraid to shape events to fit its own statement on masculinity, capitalism and America; and coloured by the purposefully unsettling shades of a chilly, blue visual look.
Patient pacing — particularly in long shots framing each of the trio against the surroundings of busy training room, claustrophobic apartment and expansive country estate — allows the pressure to build, though what really blossoms is the Foxcatcher’s troika of obsession and aggression-laced character studies. Details are drip-fed horror-style, not only in the script’s unraveling of psychological unease, but in the intensity of the performances.
With Oscar nominations apiece, Carell and Ruffalo command attention, albeit in vastly different ways. The affectations of the former, perfecting the control of the privileged yet paranoid, clash with the naturalistic caution of the ever-agreeable latter. It is Tatum, however, who steals every scene, lumbering, vulnerable, and always with the air of the loser even when Schultz is winning. His character might be an innocent initially easily manipulated, but his layered, internalised portrayal ascends to the apex of the against-type cast. Perhaps it is fitting that he has been eclipsed in the awards chatter — overlooked once again as life imitates art depicting real-life circumstances.