Review: “Foxcatcher” Has Great Performances Saturated In Perfect Atmosphere
Director: Bennett Miller
Screenwriter: E. Max Frye (written by) and Dan Futterman (written by)
Principal Cast: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, and Anthony Michael Hall
I have a strange memory. I have some fairly clear memories dating back to when I was two, but I could not even begin to tell you what I was doing a week ago. I grew up in the emerging age of the internet and the twenty four hour news cycle. I remember major events such as the O.J. Simpson trial, the JonBenet Ramsey murder, and the Oklahoma City bombing. However, the events that are described in Foxcatcher I have no memory of, and I was ten years old at the time. It seems like this would have been all over the news, yet I didn’t know this was based on true events until I started to look into the film. I was also only really confident in one member of the main cast since I’ve never been a fan of Carrell or Tatum.
Foxcatcher is dark and a perfect example of how atmosphere can make a good movie great.
Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is a former Olympic Wrestler who, despite winning a medal, is pretty down on his luck. He’s often living in the shadow of his other brother David (Mark Ruffalo) who is also a former Olympic Wrestler. While training for the 1988 preliminaries of the Seoul Summer Olympics, Mark manages to catch the interest of John du Pont (Steve Carell), the son of old money and wrestling enthusiast. John gives Mark the opportunity to train at his farm as long as Mark agrees to let John be his coach. John isn’t exactly what he seems, and he is determined to bring Mark into his world and drag David along for the ride at any cost.
I’m going to make a small tangent, but I promise that it’s going to come back around and make sense so stay with me. Silent Hill 2 is often cited as one of the best games ever made and with good reason. Not only does it have a great story with interesting characters and some great monsters, but the thing that sets Silent Hill 2 apart from other survival horror games is the atmosphere. The game is saturated in a thick fog so you can’t see anything, and there are long stretches of time where you don’t see monsters. When a monster finally does show up you’re so tense from waiting that the terror is great. Atmosphere is a tough thing to replicate in a non-interactive medium which is why the Silent Hill movies are terrible.
Now, why am I talking about a horror game that came out in 2001? Foxcatcher is not a horror movie, but it has some of the best atmosphere I’ve experienced in a long time. There is a thick level of dread that seems to hover over the entire movie. It’s that horrible, sinking feeling that something terrible is going to happen, and if you know anything about this situation then,”hey, someone should stop it”. The longer everyone seems to ignore the fact that du Pont appears to be out of his mind, the worse the tension gets. I haven’t felt atmosphere like this from a non-interactive medium in a long time, and it makes it impossible to look away.
I’ve heard several people tell me they don’t want to see Foxcatcher because they don’t like Channing Tatum. I can understand that; Tatum doesn’t always have the best track record when it comes to movies, but he was born to play Mark Schultz. Schultz is depicted as someone who isn’t the brightest bulb in the bunch who lets someone like du Pont sweep into his life and pull the rug out from underneath him. He plays a physically imposing man, but the moment du Pont verbally shuts him down he might as well be a toddler. He’s also helped by Steve Carrell.
Carrell has never struck me as someone who could pull off a really good dramatic role, but apparently all it takes is a fake nose and some grey hair and he becomes as terrifying as any axe murderer. As I said there are times that he looms over someone like Tatum. He’s the living embodiment of someone who is sheltered, entitled, and ignorant as to how the real world works. The movie gives more than enough hints that du Pont’s obsession with Schultz and wrestling is a late in life homosexual epiphany that du Pont resents. du Pont talks about ‘taking back honor’ and shows off his gun collection. There is a madness here and Carrell captures it perfectly.
The standout for me, however, was Mark Ruffalo. There is a good chance that people going into Foxcatcher won’t even recognize him because he’s so lost in David Schultz. Between the short dark hair and the full beard he doesn’t look like the man who is rallying against fracking on social media. David is probably the least damaged person and only gets pulled into du Pont’s orbit out of concern for his brother. He’s been described as “a good man trying to get by in a bad man’s world” which is very accurate.
This is a movie about men and masculinity, so there are very few female characters. Sienna Miller doesn’t have much to do as David’s wife, and Vanessa Redgrave plays du Pont’s aging mother. She is mostly there to hang around as a spectre to du Pont and his many failures in his mother’s eyes.
Director Bennett Miller doesn’t shy away from the tragedy that is this entire situation. Every time a shot lingers just a little too long on Carrell, or the moment where David is supposed to be praising du Pont and he speaks directly to the camera, it merges seamlessly with that atmosphere I was talking about earlier. It isn’t a very flashy movie but adding anything like that would take away from that awful feeling that is so important to this movie. The epiphany that du Pont is having is never expressed, and there aren’t any moments where the movie will use symbolism instead. Everything that is wrong with du Pont is done with a lovely mesh of “show, don’t tell”. The audience can tell that something isn’t right with du Pont, and the movie wants us to know this right away so we can watch the realization slowly come to his Mark and David. We also hope that they realize this before it’s too late.
Foxcatcher masterfully creates a feeling of dread as this horrible tension hangs over the entire movie like an impending natural disaster. It’s a subtle movie, and very dark, but with three standout performances it’s one of the better movies being shopped around for awards.