Foxcatcher marks a third heavyweight in the growing catalog of Bennett Miller’s feature films. Much like the director’s previous piece from 2011, Moneyball, Miller’s most recent film bypasses the sport at the center of its narrative in favor of a provocative dissection of the three men characterized in Foxcatcher. As made evident by a best director’s accolade at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, Foxcatcher lives up to the bar set by a film eight years in the making.
Inspired by events from the ’80s and ’90s, Foxcatcher largely follows Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic gold medalist struggling to find purpose in his prime. Momentarily, the audience is awarded exposure to Mark’s brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), a lauded athlete and coach and a family man basking in the light of an American dream. Desperate to forgo a life of ramen, tedious training and middle school lectures, Mark promptly accepts an offer to train at Foxcatcher Farm, the training facility of estranged estate owner John du Pont (Steve Carell). In a matter of months, Mark finds grappling success and growing calamity as his primary sponsor inches closer, which ultimately culminates in tragedy.
Carell’s performance as Foxcatcher’s proprietor consumed much of the journalistic limelight, and rightfully so, as this role grinds starkly against the comedic nature of most of the actor’s previous work. However, Carell’s jarring, theatrical about-face seems to fall short of development past the film’s first scenes. On the other hand, Tatum and Ruffalo incrementally reveal an unseen intricacy embedded within the personas of each Schultz brother. For instance, Tatum readily exposes the emotional weakness of an athlete frothing with achievement yet still utterly unsatisfied with the lackluster implications of a momentous life of success. On the other hand, Ruffalo captures Dave’s gradual realization of pending cataclysm by shifting his brow and tone, indicating a conflict brewing beneath the estate’s well-kept grounds.
However, much of Foxcatcher’s weight lies less in its powerhouse cast and more in its themes. After agreeing to join du Pont at the training grounds, Mark and his sponsor exchange a few words regarding America’s “comprised morals.” In doing so, the duo associate a sense of nationalistic importance with their endeavor while simultaneously disassociating themselves with a tangible goal. In contrast, the early scenes featuring Dave almost exclusively hit on his grounded, yet joyous demeanor: He is seen discussing his craft, breaking grappling down to a molecular level and enjoying outings and travel with his family. The notion of existential grandeur is relentlessly combating earthly satisfaction.
Likewise, an unintentional struggle of power permeates Team Foxcatcher. Quickly, John assumes a surrogate role, chastising Mark as readily as he praises him, like the owner of a prized show dog. To the opposing degree, Dave nourishes the wounded Mark. In one moment, he works beside his brother through a grueling session to make weight; in another, he fails to restrain himself when emphasizing weaknesses of Mark’s current opponent while reviewing tape. With Dave, Mark witnesses the accommodating web of a powerful support network at the implied cost of living within another’s shadow. The battle of criticism and support is illustrated to a degree that few films have achieved.
The film further flourishes with its sense of setting, as the eponymous locale is both alluring and foreboding. Frequently, the camera pans over the numerous acres of the estate, paying close attention to the stables that garnered its renown and the wrestling facility that was intended to facilitate its future. In each shot, a covering — whether morning fog, snow or the ever-present foliage — conceals the structure. Foxcatcher puts forth an unparalleled aesthetic, from interiors that mimic claustrophobia similar to the pressing force John du Pont emits to fenced regions that serve as a reminder of the ultimately fatal seclusion of the area. Thus, the film atmospherically mesmerizes and pulls far ahead of its competitors.
Miller again awards us with a character study (this time tri-fold) that brushes a personal note within the viewer, begging a timeless question: Should one attach meaning to one’s actions or revel in the momentary victory that the action itself provides? By doing so, Foxcatcher places itself among the best pieces of cinema in the last decade.