If truth is stranger than fiction, the true story upon which Foxcatcher is based is one of the most bizarre tales from the fringe of the hyper-wealthy, post-modern American subculture to emerge. The film follows Olympic gold medal wrestler Mark Schultz as he and his brother of equal accomplishments Dave Schultz as they join forces (willingly and unwillingly) with the rich patriot John du Pont.
Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as Mark and Dave (respectively) offer outstanding portrayals siblings forever bound in a rivalry that rings true. And Carell as the conflicted du Pont gives a career-redefining performance – one that will affirm any previously held doubts about his acting ability.
The thing about Foxcatcher, however, is that it is very grueling and visceral and at some parts sickening to see the drama as it unfolds between du Pont and the Schultz brothers. (After you finish this review, be sure to check out HistoryVSHollywood.com’s article that compares and contrasts the film to the actual events for further reading; like I said, truth is stranger fiction…oh, and no spoiler alert…kinda…).
As I alluded to earlier, this is dark story told exceptionally well. Director Bennett Miller and writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman were somehow impacted so much by the true events and felt the need to tell this story in their own way.
While Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of the film at RogerEbert.com calls the film as ultimately “impossible to embrace because of fundamental miscalculations in performance, direction and makeup, along with a certain clumsiness in the way that it tries to make some kind of grand statement about American values, or the lack thereof,” I would argue that the storytellers simply wanted to tell the events as they happened (obviously slightly dramatized), and the implications fall where they may.
After all, the true story happened in the late 1980s; America’s rich and famous were still becoming rich and famous because of what their family did, not because they swindled a few funds for themselves out of the real estate market (that never happened until the mid-1990s, right?).
The story of Foxcatcher, as rooted in history as it is, actually fits the bill of a strong character-driven drama. Our protagonist Mark Schultz, as portrayed by Channing Tatum, introduces us to his life of desperately trying to keep up under his older brother’s influence. Clunking around like a bachelor brute, Mark is just trying to make ends meet as a travelling speaker of the benefits of being an Olympic hero, an occupation that only gets him twenty bucks a gig.
It’s no wonder he is drawn to the offer presented by John du Pont of the American horse-training dynasty. In him, Mark sees a father, a coach, a mentor, and a friend that will help him get to the top. John du Pont, as we soon discover, is not so noble. Not to spoil anything major, we find out that the only reason du Pont wants Mark is to use him and manipulate him to get to Dave. From there, we see du Pont coax Mark into a lifestyle of meathead in the morning and a cocaine habit in the evening and even an implied romantic relationship (on which note I’ll once again direct you to the History VS Hollywood link above) all in an effort to reach out to the elusive older brother Dave, who has already decided to give up the wrestling business and settle down with his family.
Of course, just as Mark Schultz is living in his brother’s shadow, we see du Pont living in his mother’s, and it’s a scary thing when we see the relationship between du Pont and his mother affect everything else in the film. Although he claims to “not share [his] mother’s affection for horse flesh,” he seems to have graduated his lust to something more human – arguably the only reason he makes himself the wrestling coach in the first place (but again, no spoilers).
The filmmakers of Foxcatcher spare no expense in employing other techniques in their storytelling. The makeup used to transform the actors into their historical characters especially shows a type of artistry more likely seen in live theatre performances instead of on the silver screen (in my opinion, it would have definitely looked better at on a proscenium stage from twenty feet away rather than super-magnified on a large screen).
Otherwise, the actors’ own talents help them tell the story. Ruffalo and Tatum’s own morphed physicality and seemingly unnatural speech patterns help the create the illusion that they are these people, and those are the marks of excellent acting.
Something peculiar about the soundtrack to this film is that it seems to only express certainty and faithfulness as they manifest themselves within Tatum’s character Mark. For example, the strings harmoniously swell when Mark makes his initial cross-country drive to du Pont’s Pennsylvanian property as if to suggest that Mark is sure about putting his faith in this mysterious benefactor. In another moment, a piano softly underscores the scene as Mark leads his team in their first training exercises through the du Pont’s woods. Melodious moments like these are few and far between the long, gravitous passages of silence used to highlight the plot and character development – a very tactful and effective storytelling move on the filmmakers’ part.
Ultimately, Foxcatcher hits the bullseye in its efforts of telling a story that needs to be heard, even if it is not necessarily a “good” story. How often do we need to be reminded of the grotesqueness of real life in order to highlight the beauty of it. How often do we need to be brought to the edge of our humanity in order to realize that we can’t do life all by ourselves. How often do we need to see pride, greed, deception, and manipulation in order to value humility, temperance, honesty, and sacrificial love.
Foxcatcher wins in showcasing the bad in order to reinstate the good; unfortunately, there are other films that do the same thing without the R rating and would be much more palatable. So if you catch yourself watching this film with some friends or for an at-home movie night, get that filter up, and get out that spandex.