Foxcatcher would rather receive respect, not praise. Filmed with chilly cinematography, director Bennett Miller maintains a tasteful distance from his subject. While many true crime films focus on lurid details, here is one that goes out of its way to remain obtuse. The three main characters never discuss how they feel, at least not in a direct way, which means Miller wants us to read between the lines. The only trouble is that Foxcatcher maintains its distance to a fault, to the point where the nuanced, terrific performances are nearly lost. Given the somber tone and look of the film, however, it’s ironic that its best moments are also the most funny.
Steve Carrell stars as John du Pont, an eccentric billionaire with aspirations of becoming an Olympic-winning wrestling coach. His star wrestler is Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a gifted athlete who seems distant, angry, and a little dim. John easily plies Mark with promises of glory and wealth – the estate’s guest house is a marked improvement from Mark’s crummy apartment – and soon they’re flying around the world to win major wrestling titles. Despite Mark’s talent, John his eye on his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who has more experience and understands how to communicate actual wrestling tactics. The screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman implies that John sabotages Mark so that Dave will swoop in to the rescue, and from there the relationships become truly poisonous.
Miller shies away from the stranger details about the case precisely because he thinks they’re a distraction. I had a chance to talk to Miller briefly about his film, and this is what he had to say about his introduction to the story:
I really couldn’t glean much about them based on the reporting that had been done… they gathered facts, did some interviews, and moved on to the next thing. There was not that much about who these people were, and who they were to each other. All I heard were the sensational tidbits about du Pont being crazy.
A simple internet search reveals the unseemly depths of du Pont’s insanity (he suffered from bizarre delusions that seemingly went unchecked). It’s the sort of material that Martin Scorsese explored in The Aviator, except with more sympathy. Carrell’s performance is creepy, full of uneasy smiles and affected accents, but his character only experiences awkward slights, not full-on indignities. In fact, du Pont’s impetuous behavior is something out a character-driven comedy, only in Foxcatcher it’s deadly serious:
I think I have an extra-dry sense of humor. I really think that [some scenes in Foxcatcher] are funny. They’re not played for laughs, the characters do not think they’re being funny, and it’s all truthful behavior. It’s the kind of funny where you laugh and do not exactly know why.
An early example of this is when du Pont arranges to procure his own tank, and it does not come with the mounted machine gun he demanded. In a fit of rage, du Pont slams the clipboard out of someone’s hand, and the scene plays out almost exactly like something from Wet Hot American Summer. Miller is in on the joke, although he does not make it easy for his audience to figure that out.
The more compelling parts of Foxcatcher involve wrestling, in all its sweaty grace. Miller films the wrestling matches from a medium shot, so it’s easy to see how one athlete can out-maneuver the other. It’s not violent, exactly, although Miller highlights the sport’s inherent intimacy. This focus is not erotic, especially since the many scenes involve Mark, Dave, and their sparring matches. While Tatum holds his own as a lug with reserves of self-loathing, Ruffalo’s performance as Dave is remarkable. Dave is a decent, warm-hearted man, and Ruffalo finds a way to make that defining characteristic seem compelling. In the film’s best scene, Dave contributes to an aggrandizing documentary John makes for himself, and Ruffalo shows how Dave’s integrity grapples with financial need. Du Pont lets his extreme wealth cast a pall over all the action in Foxcatcher, and Miller wisely lets the promise of fortune splinter in the mind of the Scultz brothers.
Since Foxcatcher is a true story, I don’t mind revealing that the film culminates with John murdering Dave in cold blood. With the help of cinematographer Greig Fraser, the death scene is both austere and clumsy; he captures murder at its most banal. There is no explanation for John’s behavior, except perhaps that Dave internalized values to which John could only give lip service. The strange thing about the climax, however, is not the cinematography, but the chronology. The film implies that Dave’s death happens months after he moved his family into the du Pont estate, although his family actually lived there for years. Miller has an explanation for this change:
When a [timeline] choice is made, I feel that it must not violate who these people were. The choice was made for dramatic expediency. It was either that or sticking in a beat of exposition, and at that point the movie only wants to flow.
In other words, his film is less factual in order to reach a bigger truth about what happened. Foxcatcher is full of those liberties, although the cumulative is more maddening than it is truthful. Here is a film that is objective to the point of tedium, or near-tedium, as if insight or warmth would violate Miller’s integrity. He knows his film is funny, so I cannot help but wonder what Foxcatcher would have been like if it was directed by Christopher Guest.