foxcatcher__spanBy Kyle G. King. The director’s responsibility to a film, among others, is to blend a world of fiction within a semi-logical world of reality. Bennett Miller is a director who is unwilling to commit completely to one style of filmmaking, but rather finds his comfort zone by creating a union between documentary and fiction. He specializes in spotlighting eccentric personalities, showcased in his best known works, Capote and Moneyball, both based around real people who became mavericks within their own respective fields. But Miller’s latest film, Foxcatcher, takes us deeper, to a place much darker and intentionally more difficult to understand.

Foxcatcher slowly reveals itself as a haunting sports drama alongside the world of competitive freestyle wrestling. The unlikely dramatic casting (and vulture-like prosthetic nose) of Steve Carell as John du Pont opens up the story to the unexpected; this is not a Carell you’ve ever seen before. Even with a script based on true events it’s difficult to know what to anticipate from the start, and it’s right there that Miller has you precisely where he wants you, trapped between fact and fantasy. If you’re hungry for that “triumph of the human spirit” saga typical of the sports genre, your stomach will likely turn with Foxcatcher.

The story begins with Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, as another unexpected, yet spot-on bit of the film’s casting), an American Olympic gold medalist in wrestling who is stuck in a cycle of eating alone in his small apartment, speaking to schoolchildren for a measly twenty-buck paycheck, and fierce exercise. This is all indicative of a rather mundane life dedicated to wrestling and training. The screenplay and Tatum both effectively sell Mark as pathetic and naive, yet still warmly sympathetic as a brawny 27 year-old with no apparent sex drive. If not for his towering grandeur and elite physique, you’d pity him entirely.


Once we meet Mark’s older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), the film has its first real moment of discovery: as the two brothers warm each other up, they begin to grapple at each other more and more fiercely. They say nothing, but not unlike a ballet we learn everything there is to know about the complexities of their relationship through their brutish physicality. The wrestling choreography is never overwrought, and Miller takes long wide shots that show the actors have relentlessly done their physical homework. These wrestling scenes feel passionate, concise, and authentic, (if not slightly homoerotic). The relationships among the big male personalities always walk a sharp line between brotherly adoration and pent-up sexual frustration. But as Miller tends to do, he never softballs any answers and these issues are never directly addressed, but instead, he shows a smart respect for his audience and his characters, and allows you to approach and explore these themes for yourself.

Mark’s past win at the 1984 Olympics has put him on the national radar, but Dave’s mirrored success and more gregarious nature has led to Mark being long thought of as “Dave’s younger brother”, and because of this he hardly possesses of a personality of his own. The weakness in this relationship is precisely what du Pont zeroes in on when he approaches Mark with the proposition to lead his “Team Foxcatcher” to wrestling gold at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. It does not take long for du Pont’s sinister intentions to seat themselves firmly in the corner of every room he enters. Carell’s plodding voice and creeping villainous posture never allow you to fully trust du Pont like Mark grows to. Even through all the money and gratitude in which he showers Mark, the question hangs as to exactly what interest he has for gathering these young men to live and train on his property.

When Foxcatcher Farm is declared the official training grounds for the 1988 United States wrestling team, du Pont finally manages to buy out Dave and convince him to move his family to the du Pont estate. And when all three men are brought to the same place at the same time, Miller’s character-driven saga remains calm and patient with its characters, giving little to no music in scenes of high tension and relying more on smart filmmaking and concise acting to stir up the drama. Oftentimes the dialogue only serves to validate what we’ve already come to feel and only steeps us further in its ominous spirit. With a clash of high-society and financial entitlement, including ties to loyalty, dedication, and betrayal, Miller understands how to gracefully make an audience love and hate a character, keeping them firmly held on the ground that lies before them.

SteveCarellFoxCatcherAt the 52nd New York Film Festival, HBO featured a Directors Dialogue where Miller explained how he tried not to allow preconceived ideas to oppress on-set filming, to keep things loose and not let the script dictate exactly what happens in front of the camera. With a trained improv actor like Carell, this decompressed storytelling creates many moments of sentimental honesty and surprise, as well as a few laughs in an otherwise overly melodramatic film. But this also creates a large margin of risk, and the gamble occasionally trips the film from its otherwise perfect stride, along with some pacing issues into the third act that function only to showcase the factual ending, rather than work harder to support the emotions needed to properly land it. There is a quick shift in the audience’s allegiance to certain characters and a seeming breakdown in communication between script, director, actors, and editor.

There isn’t much else that takes away from Bennett Miller’s masterful character study, or the three top-class performances of Carell, Tatum, and Ruffalo. While his past works have played the mix of reality and fiction somewhat close to the chest, it’s liberating to see Bennett Miller take a step slightly outside his comfort zone and be able to achieve and retain a merited sense of accomplishment throughout. Foxcatcher is sure to do well this award season and I don’t think a critic around could rustle a respectable excuse against it.