Dir: Bennett Miller
Academy Award Nominations: Lead Actor. Supporting Actor. Director. Original Screenplay. Makeup and Hairstyling.
When you hear about a film called ‘Foxcatcher’ with Steve Carell and Channing Tatum, you’re probably expecting a family comedy about a man who chases stray foxes with nets, there’s even a poster mocked up to that effect… You really don’t expect this!
Based on the true story of how, in the late 80’s, Olympic Gold medal-winning wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) were recruited by multi-millionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carell) to start his own training centre for world-class U.S. wrestlers. Their benefactor however was a difficult and volatile person to be associated with, leading to disastrous results professionally and personally.
The film opens with a little archive footage of the du Pont family horses and dogs hunting foxes, the idea of their dynasty and power is established from the beginning so it lingers over the entire film. Mark is then seen, a little-known Olympic gold medal-winner talking to school kids, though it was actually David who was scheduled to go. David’s clearly the better known of the brothers, and his younger brother lives constantly in his shadow, they have a close but sometimes fractured relationship, established and shown through their practising together. When Mark is summoned by John E. du Pont and the idea of running a training centre is pitched to him, it’s obviously his opportunity to do something notable for himself and he jumps at the chance, moving from his basic little apartment immediately with little hesitation. When he receives an odd welcome at Dupont’s we get the feeling immediately that it’s not exactly what John Dupont had in mind, but still he’s accommodated, and given a video of a documentary about the ‘dynasty’ of the Du Ponts, their opulence surrounds him and he’s under du Pont’s control.
John E. Dupont is an odd presence before we even see him, and Mark Schultz’s first meeting with him is somewhat uneasy. Du Pont has big plans and sees himself as a coach, talking to Mark like a distant father or teacher might, and often stating his endeavours, with lines like “I’m a wrestling coach” and later an “ornithologist”, an “explorer”, a “patriot” and even a “philatelist and philanthropist”. He wants to be all things, but none are a good fit, though his money seems to get him where he wants to be, we even see him training with the police marksmen. The training on the grounds reinforces how much influence he has, and even when he wanders into the gym with his gun still in hand and fires it at the ceiling, nobody challenges him about doing such an odd and dangerous thing, they can really see that he’s not stable but everyone humours him and he’s accustomed to getting exactly what he wants.
One of the things he wants, and pursues relentlessly, is Dave Schultz, who he does eventually get to join the team. While this acquisition is a small victory for du Pont, it’s also a turning point for everyone involved, especially Mark who is once again under his brother’s shadow. His performance in championships suffers badly, and though Dave is a support to him, the whole dynamic between the three is constantly uneasy, with John du Pont often looking on creepily and taking wins as his own personal victory tha can be added to the family trophy cabinets. He says that they are friends, but then proceeds to state that his friends should call him “Eagle, or Golden Eagle, or coach”, and that his childhood friends were paid for by his mother. This is just one of a few insights we get into his deep-seated mother issues. We hardly see Mrs du Pont (played by Vanessa Redgrave), but we hear about her long before seeing her, and clearly she’s not approving of him or his pursuits, and rather than dissuading him, this merely fuels his determination to impress her, once even putting on a showy display of leadership in front of his mother when she visits the gym, and this faux coaching puts him into conflict with Dave on more than one occasion. When du Pont commissions a documentary about himself and the team, with the clear aim of self-promotion, Dave is coerced to praise him, and the final video cannot hide the fact that the team dynamic isn’t working, and du Pont sees him as the problem, turning on him completely.
Produced by Annapurna Pictures, who produce only a few films but often end up Oscar nominated, this film continues that trend for them with 5 Academy Award nominations in excellent categories. The BAFTAs a few weeks ago also featured nominations for Carell and Ruffalo, and clearly it’s the performances that are getting most of the attention with this film. Often comedic actors give their very best performances in their rarer dramatic roles, and for Tatum and Carell their transformations are huge. There’s a physicality to their performances, with Tatum convincingly moving like a wrestler, with a considerable change in build, and a really well-observed performance full of nice touches such as the way Schultz eats that are far from what we’ve seen him do before. There are incredibly raw moments where he literally beats himself up, and though a man of few words, this speaks volumes. Steve Carell has the most drastic transformation in his appearance, with prosthetics changing his usually lovable face into one that is quite unsettling while still remaining fully convincing. Mark Ruffalo is also great, and shows the different sides to his character, including that of a dedicated family man. It’s also interesting to see Sienna Miller isn’t glammed up in her role as his wife and I could hardly recognise her, it’s a very small role but she’s the Oscar wife of the year, also playing the wife of the lead in ‘American Sniper’.
The film apparently takes quite a lot of artistic licence and condenses some events depicted, but I don’t think that’s an issue. As many years have passed since this happened it’s not trying to add to an ongoing discussion of current events, rather it successfully brings the little-known or forgotten events to the attention of people like myself who had no idea about them. There are shocking developments in this film, one of which I’d heard about despite trying to avoid any spoilers, yet it’s testament to the effectiveness of the film that it still came as a shock to me. Director Bennett Miller made ‘Moneyball’ a few years ago, another excellent film that also had a sporting subject but took an interesting angle on it that engaged even those of us who have no knowledge of the spot or interest in sports themselves. That’s what he’s achieved here again, I was fully engaged from start to end with the powerful performances conveying a gripping story that while it may not be perfectly accurate in the way it’s depicted, absolutely gives a full and clear sense of the situation.