If you’re looking for a feel-good film to boost your spirits and morale, then I must warn you to stay far, far away from Foxcatcher. While this is technically a sports film, it doesn’t contain any of the hope, cheer or victory that is usually synonymous with the genre. This is a sports film with all of the happiness sucked out of it, which is then replaced by an ever mounting sense of dread and scenarios so disturbing that they’re borderline horror movie territory. But what makes this film scarier than most is that it’s completely true. Based on the true story of wealthy aristocrat John du Pont and the Olympic wrestling team that he formed on his Foxcatcher Farm, Foxcatcher is almost too strangely bizarre to believe. Directed with a cold, didactic method by Bennett Miller, it’s a film that grabs you and refuses to let go. It’s admittedly a little slow at times, but what’s happening on screen is usually so fascinating that you’ll be unable to look away. Featuring three of the best performances of 2014, Foxcatcher is a film with such a bizarre true story that you’ll be unable to get it out of your head, even days after the film has ended.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is a champion wrestler who won gold at the 1984 Olympics, alongside his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). But Mark has not achieved the fame and success that his brother has. He’s a lonely guy and he’s constantly living under his brother’s shadow. But one day he receives a phone call that invites him to visit the Foxcatcher Farm in Pennsylvania. Mark flies to the estate, where he’s introduced to John du Pont (Steve Carell), one of the wealthiest men in America. Du Pont is creating a private wrestling team and he wants Mark to be an integral part of it. Mark eagerly agrees and immediately moves onto the du Pont property. He and John start to spend a great deal of time together and they begin to form a strange bond. It’s this bond, along with the estranged relationship that du Pont shares with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), that will lead to tragic and unpredictable situations.

From the eerie archival footage of Foxcatcher Farm that opens the movie (accompanied by Rob Simonsen’s haunting, sparingly used score), Foxcatcher holds you in an icy grip. In his best film to date, Bennett Miller has crafted a true-life tale that’s as haunting as a quiet nightmare. It’s very deliberately paced, almost crawling along at the speed of a snail to match the strange situations and uncomfortableness of the characters. And while the film is undeniably slow, it’s absolutely gripping from start to finish. The screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman ably explores these characters and the unique situations that they place themselves in. Aided by Greig Fraser’s suitably grim cinematography, Miller cloaks these characters and developments in a constant feeling of cold dread. There’s not a moment that feels out of place, which is strange for a film that feels so unusual.

But perhaps the most interesting thing in the entire movie is the character of John du Pont. I knew absolutely nothing about the man as I went into the film, but Miller and company do a fantastic job of exploring the psyche of this unusual character. He’s a man who was born into an extremely wealthy family, one that had so much money that du Pont could basically purchase anything that he desired. But his mother was clearly not a good caregiver and her lack of love and support were key factors in du Pont’s idiosyncrasies. Du Pont’s relationship with his mother may not take up much screen time in the film, but it’s a hugely important aspect to what makes the man tick. He’s clearly trying to impress his mother with his wrestling team; a scene where she visits a practice becomes extremely uncomfortable when John tries to show off some basic maneuvers in front of her, only for her to leave the room moments later. I’ve never seen somebody quite like this guy and it’s his character that gives the film most of its dramatic unease.

Steve Carell may not have been everybody’s first choice to play such a dark character, but he was undoubtedly the right choice. I’ve been championing Carell’s abilities as an actor for years now, but his performance as John du Pont is the highpoint of his career thus far. Aided by some extensive makeup work, Carell’s appearance is downright off-putting. With a large nose, clammy skin and a tendency to tilt his head back, he really does look like du Pont. But his performance is more than just appearances; from the way that he talks, all the way down to his strange mannerisms, Carell practically becomes the character. I’ve read testimonies about du Pont and watched old footage of him and Carell absolutely nails it. And while he’s undeniably creepy in the role, he also brings a humanity to the character that most performers simply would not be able to do. This is a man who is clearly mentally unstable, but his poor mental state is not entirely his fault. He was born into a family that was far from normal and he has a mother who treats him terribly, never offering a shred of affection or support. A scene where Carell confesses that a childhood acquaintance was only paid to be his friend by his mother is downright tragic. Still, all of the sympathy in the world can’t change how creepy du Pont is and Carell is able to get under your skin. Every scene that he’s in, you just can’t take your eyes off of him. This is a performance that people will be talking about for years.

But this is just as much the story of Mark Schultz as it is John du Pont. As Schultz, Channing Tatum also delivers a career-best performance. Schultz lacks all of the charm that Tatum is often known for, but he slides perfectly into this character. Schultz is a lonely guy and his entire life revolves around wrestling. He doesn’t seem particularly bright and he doesn’t have a lot of personality, but he’s a good person who just wants to make a name for himself. He looks up to du Pont like a father figure and it’s absolutely fascinating to watch how quickly Schultz attaches himself to this strange individual. Tatum’s performance is the most physical in the film, particularly in one scene where he destroys a hotel room. Tatum has a great onscreen relationship with Mark Ruffalo, who delivers a fantastically understated performance as Mark’s older brother Dave. Dave is the most “normal” character in the entire film and Ruffalo plays the part with a warmth and understanding. The relationship between Mark and Dave is a complicated one, but it’s clear that they both care for each other and it’s obvious that Dave very much loves his younger brother. Ruffalo is great in every scene that he’s in, but he’s particularly outstanding in a sequence where Dave is unable to call du Pont his mentor in front of a documentary filmmaker. Finally, Vanessa Redgrave is great as John’s mother, Jean du Pont. She only has a handful of scenes, but her performance is a crucial aspect to the overall film. She’s a cruel woman and a scene where she calls wrestling a low sport successfully explains so much about John’s character.

I could go on and on about what makes Foxcatcher so great: from the perfect production design by Jess Gonchor that captures the look and feel of Foxcatcher Farms, to the great editing from Jay Cassidy, Stuart Levy and Conor O’Neill that prevents the film’s slow pace from ever dragging, this is a production where near perfection is achieved in practically every department. It’s a thematically rich film about tragedy, loneliness, the obsession to achieve greatness, homoerotic undertones within the relationship between John du Pont and Mark Schultz and the idea that the wealthiest people in America can use their money to buy whatever kind of life they desire. But even with the heavy subject matter, the film manages to be funny in the darkest possible way. From John’s declaration that his friends call him “Golden Eagle”, to a scene where John coaches Mark on a speech to give while also snorting cocaine, you’ll be surprised at the number of laughs that pop up in this dark drama. In just his fourth feature film, Bennett Miller has created a true work of art and put it up on-screen for all of us to see. Foxcatcher is nothing short of astounding.

Foxcatcher receives 4/4

Advertisements