No ordinary sports film
“Foxcatcher” represents the last of the Oscar nominated late arrivals from last year and like many of the distinguished films still in theaters it is a well-crafted downer of a movie. You wouldn’t call films like “American Sniper,” “Still Alice,” “Whiplash,” “Birdman,” “Selma,” or “The Theory of Everything,” anything remotely “feel good.” In fact being upbeat and funny is a death knell to receiving any Oscar attention in the big categories. And if a film is anything superhero-related the filmmakers might as well burn their tuxedos. This explains why such a successful film–both with critics and at the box office– “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a hilariously buoyant film with Marvel origins never a stood a chance with the Academy – which is rather contemptible, and deserves an angry column of its own. But we digress.
Based on true events, “Foxcatcher” (directed by Bennett Miller of “Moneyball” fame) depicts the events from the late 80’s when wealthy heir to the du Pont fortune and philanthropist John du Pont (Steve Carrell, nominated for Best Actor) started the titular training academy for wrestlers at his 800-acre estate in the rolling hills of east Pennsylvania. His star “pupil” was Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) already a gold medal winner from the 1984 Olympics and hoping to win another in Seoul, Korea in 1988. “Pupil” is in quotes because DuPont was by no means an experienced wrestler or coach, but as the film suggests his goals were more darkly self-serving than charitably altruistic. Du Pont is unsuccessful at first in recruiting Mark’s older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo, nominated in the Supporting category) who not only was a previous Olympic Gold medal winner, but was still a superb wrestler with a unique brotherly bond to his younger sibling. Eventually the Schultz brothers including Dave’s wife and family live on the estate with other wrestlers and the pressures of competition begin to become evident, especially on the younger more unstable Mark who can’t quite live up to his brother’s legacy.
Much has been made of physical alterations both prosthetic and otherwise, inhabited by the lead actors and while such devices aren’t without their slight distraction Carell, playing completely against type as the brooding, even creepy du Pont and Tatum as the sulking, enigmatic younger brother and Ruffalo as the gently supporting older brother all deliver career defining performances.
Audiences may struggle to find depth in the script which doesn’t give the actors much dialogue and—not unlike the true events themselves– leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But looking deeper, “Foxcatcher” offers some peeks into the insecurity borne of unfulfilled expectations of children and the frustrations of having an admired, likeable, successful older sibling. This is dark, often unsettling material and the tone of “Foxcatcher” is ominous, almost suffocatingly so, from start to finish. The story begs for a more probing documentary style film.
But for the performances alone, “Foxcatcher” is worth seeing, even if its’ one of the saddest sports films in recent memory.
Rated R (for some drug use and a scene of violence).