Bennett Miller’s ‘Foxcatcher’: A Mesmerizing Telling of a Bizarre, Tragic, True Tale

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Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is the dark story of a deeply troubled man and a cold-blooded murder, but that’s not what drew the Capote and Moneyball director to the film. “I thought it was funny. Seriously!” he said at the news conference following Friday’s press and media screening for the film, which screens tonight at the New York Film Festival. “The absurdity, the dark comic absurdity of one of the wealthiest men in America bringing a team of wrestlers to his estate to train, where he would become their coach without knowing anything about wrestling… It’s the kind of thing that’s funny till it’s not — and then it’s not funny at all.”

Channing Tatum stars as Mark Schultz, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist with hopes to compete again in ’88. He’s strong, powerful, and gifted, but there’s unhappiness in him, and a bit of rage; he sees the end of the line off on the horizon, and doesn’t know what to do about it, since this life is all he knows, and this gift is all he’s got. He lives a life that’s wet and gray and depressing; he trains with his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also a gold medalist, but they go about their work in silence. And that’s when “John du Pont, of the du Pont family” rings. Du Pont (an unrecognizable Steve Carell) wants Mark and Dave to come to his Pennsylvania estate, where he’s built a training facility, and put together a team for Olympic competition. That’s the tangible goal, but he has a larger, symbolic one in mind. “I am a patriot,” he tells Mark. “And I want to see this country soar again.”

Foxcatcher is a film that is packed with themes without overstating them, but this is the big one; the preposterously wealthy du Pont gladly pays Mark the biggest amount of money he can think of ($25,000 per year) to take part in a classic American ideal of wealth: for all intents and purposes, an oligarchical existence. Mark and his teammates are like the horses that the du Ponts keep, ride, and breed — or, better yet, like the lavish train set that he no longer wants. At first, Mark fills another need as well: as a surrogate son for Carell, a childless bachelor with serious mommy issues.

The character of du Pont is written in a way that makes him difficult to read; Carell, brilliantly, keys in on his oddness and plays his opaqueness, seizing on it and making that the key to the character (rather than trying to penetrate it). He knows what buttons to push, both to bring Mark close — becoming something of a father figure for the younger man — and then to shove him away. “You’re more than Dave Schultz’s little brother” he tells Mark early on; later, when Mark disappoints him, he demands that Dave join the team. Initially, Mark says Dave can’t be bought. It turns out he can, but perhaps at a higher price than he bargained for.

Channing Tatum may not have the widest range, but he’s found a character perfectly suited to what he does well onscreen (perhaps better than anyone) — he finds the character’s physicality, and the vulnerability beneath. He hits notes of despair that are transcendent, and he’s doing so much in his last scene (without “doing” anything) that it kind of knocks the wind out of you.

Same goes for the movie. Miller wasn’t just being arch about the humor; it is a funny movie, though darkly so (du Pont tells his “friend” Mark not to call him Mr. du Pont: “Most of my friends will call me Eagle or Golden Eagle”). Yet in the back hour, the music quietly turns the screws, and Miller stops letting the air in, and I realized that a knot had formed in my chest — even were it not based on a true story, there’s an inevitability about the destination we seem to be steaming towards.

Yet even at du Pont’s most horrifying moment, Carell and Miller do not let us in. What they do so effectively, there and throughout the film, was articulated by co-star Vanessa Redgrave on Friday, almost in passing. The characters’ motives and desires should be present, and understood, but “it must be allowed that anyone watching this whole scene is going to have their own reaction,” the venerable actress noted, and “that must not be imposed upon the audience.”

Miller echoed this idea — that when certain themes or judgments become too dominant, “I find that they erase the allegory and they invite a kind of conclusion to things. The film doesn’t want to wave its finger at the audience and conclude anything — rather than to keep staring at these things that tempt us to react, to conclude, to designate good and evil. Sometimes, when you’re making a film like this, you’re very tempted towards the low-hanging fruit, and you feel like a cat wanting to bat at the dangling feather. But that’s cheap.” Instead, he tries to look past that low-hanging fruit, and in doing so, “to allow for each character to make the best case for that character.” That he does. Foxcatcher is challenging, unnerving, and brilliant.

Foxcatcher screens tonight at the New York Film Festvial. It is out November 14. NYFF Photo Credits: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire