"What do you hope to achieve, Mark?"
Very, very few directors make a career out of working exclusively in the realm of the "based on a true story" genre, but Bennett Miller has proven to be quite comfortable in this realm. His third and latest film, Foxcatcher, sets its sights on chemical heir John DuPont (Steve Carell) and his bizarre, often contentious relationship with Olympic gold medal wrestlers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). It's a story of a lot of things gone awry from misplaced patriotism to the sheltered world of the extremely wealthy, and there are a lot of ideas flowing through it, but these ideas never really gel into a cohesive story about any one thing, which ultimately works against the film.
The film's biggest issue is that it doesn't necessarily have a point of view; There's no one character that the film is really about. It's about all three of these men, but really only gets inside the head of Mark Schultz, mainly because he's a bit of a dolt and an open book, making him the easiest of the three to psychoanalyze. DuPont is a total enigma, and Miller and his screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman knew they couldn't really hang their hat on him as the protagonist, so they sort of split the difference between the Schultzes, and end up with a curiously unfocused story.
The first half and a hair beyond that focus intensely on Mark, who forever lives in the shadow of his much more well-known brother. When he receives a call from Jack (Anthony Michael Hall) to come and meet with the wealthy but somewhat reclusive DuPont, Mark jumps at the chance to meet with someone who seems interested in him. DuPont offers Mark the chance to come and live at his estate and train at his newly built facilities, dubbed Foxcatcher, in preparation for the upcoming World Championships and 1988 Olympics in Seoul. DuPont pitches himself as a patriot, and someone who is fed up with the way America treats its Olympians, and offers Mark this chance to finally distance himself from his brother.
At first, Mark and DuPont form a bond based on their mutual failure to live up to their family name. DuPont's mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is a world class horse breeder, and he sees wrestling as his way to get the acclaim from people that seems to only be lavished upon his mother. It's a powerful bond, and one which the film wisely focuses its attention on, without ever really spelling it out for the audience. Unfortunately after winning the World Championship, DuPont begins to treat Mark as something of a conduit through which he can reach his much more successful brother Dave, and their once touching yet undeniably bizarre relationship begins to feel strained. Things really take a turn for Mark once Dave accepts DuPont's offer and moves his wife (Sienna Miller) and children onto the estate to begin working for Foxcatcher.
At this point in the film, things start to really lose focus. DuPont was adamant about bringing Dave to work with the team, yet knows that he can't control him the way he controlled his brother. Mark slowly but surely fades into the background, until he just sort of disappears from the film altogether. All of the work the audience has invested in caring about Mark must now go into still caring about Dave and DuPont, and it's a big risk that doesn't quite pay off for the script or the film. The timeline also starts to get a little hazy, and the passage of time becomes almost impossible to keep track of once the '88 Olympics come and go. I hate to constantly harp on films where the third act fails to live up to the promise of the first two, but this is another film in which that's sadly the case.
More so than that, however, is the fact that the film feels like a damn good one hour episode of Dateline, or some other true crime show, stretched out to an almost unbearable 134 minutes. The film does build a good amount of tension, but much like Michael Haneke at his worst, building tension for over an hour doesn't make a film compelling in and of itself. In fact, this film feels like it could have been made by Haneke, as it will likely work incredibly well for some in the audience, but ultimately left me feeling cold.
Thank goodness Miller is still an ace when it comes to casting his films, as the core trio of actors here is spectacular. Carell transforms himself wholly into DuPont, even cutting a profile that looks downright birdlike, nicely complimenting his insistence on being called "Eagle," as well as his general infatuation with birds and ornithology—another subplot that ultimately goes nowhere. Nevertheless, Carell nails his performance and sells it in a way that will more than likely silence anyone who's looked at him as nothing more than a buffoonish funny man. He's got an edge to him that Miller exploits to great ends.
Tatum is another surprising revelation, proving yet again that he's the real deal. He makes Mark a pitiable character without ever really appealing for pity. It's a terrific balancing act, and one which he pulls off with aplomb. It's perhaps least surprising that Ruffalo is great, only because anyone who's followed his career knows what a terrific actor and chameleon he is, but he once again delivers a solid performance here. The film is handsomely shot by Zero Dark Thirty cinematographer Greig Fraser, and the score by Rob Simonsen is both spare and haunting, nicely complimenting the similar imagery.
The real shame is that this was probably a crack ninety minute film stretched beyond its means to well over two hours. I'm not sure if it could have used more editing in the writing process or in post-production, but either way it just feels downright interminable by the time the climax rolls around. It's a good movie, with some terrific performances and a handful of great scenes, but it feels truly less than the sum of its parts. One should never leave a film based on a true story feeling that an already enigmatic human being has become even more so. The film purports to offer a character study about DuPont, yet manages to put such a fascinating person even further out of reach for the audience, which is ultimately its fatal flaw.
GO Rating: 2.5/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]