Foxcatcher – dark, disturbing, dazzling

Director Bennett Miller once again dramatises a true story to dazzling effect with his new movie FOXCATCHER.

If you read this blog, you’ll know I’m a big fan of the director Bennett Miller. From his superb debut feature Capote, which drew an Oscar-winning turn from the late and mercurial Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role, to the follow-up Moneyball, where we saw Brad Pitt deliver the finest performance of his career, Miller has certainly made his presence felt as a director of incredible precision and power. His new movie FOXCATCHER is again based on a true story and follows three men, no less complex and conflicted than his previous characters Truman Capote, Perry Smith, Billy Beane or Peter Brandt. The movie has just opened in America but I’ve had the very good fortune to see it at this year’s London Film Festival in October, three months ahead of its UK release in January.

And what a treat of a movie it was. I don’t usually like to blog about films which aren’t on general release but I feel I have to make an exception with FOXCATCHER to tell how good it is.

Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz and Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz in Foxcatcher

Channing Tatum is Mark Schultz and Mark Ruffalo is his older brother Dave

Mark Schultz is a gold medal-winning Olympian wrestler who’s still existing in the shadow of his older brother (and fellow Olympic champion) Dave. He can’t quite be thought of by anyone (even himself) in the same league as Dave and so when he receives a call to meet someone that admires him and wants to help win another Olympic medal, he jumps at the chance on offer. The person requesting the meeting is John E. du Pont, a billionaire wrestling enthusiast, and wannabe coach. Travelling to the palatial ‘FOXCATCHER’ estate in Pennsylvania, we watch Mark be silently overawed by the generosity and scope of what du Pont is proposing – to help Mark win gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.

And so a slow sort of courtship begins, as du Pont lavishes his time and money on Mark but perhaps it’s really all to win his true prize, Dave – the family man and truly gifted sportsman who everyone adores. What’s clear to du Pont is that Dave’s the key to making everything work and when du Pont sets his mind to something, he pursues relentlessly. The building of the relationship between these three very different men is beautifully illustrated here by Miller and his screenwriters Dan Futterman and E Max Frye.

For all the seemingly positive gestures du Pont makes, there’s an underlying feeling that there’s something darker and unsettling behind his hard-to-read facade; at the same time, you watch the two brothers struggle to connect and articulate what’s happening to them with this interloper in their midst that offers much but at what cost. The male camaraderie that sport engenders and also the machismo that men display to each other is riveting to watch and just as in Moneyball, this is almost not a film about sport but of a perfectly pitched character study in that environment. Here though, it leads to tragedy.

Steve Carell is John du Pont in Foxcatcher

Steve Carell is John du Pont

Where Miller has triumphed once again is in his casting. We all know how great Mark Ruffalo is and here we see another of his pitch-perfect performances, presenting Dave as a grounded, calm family man to whom you feel things have come easily in his life up to this point and is now having to navigate much more difficult situations. Channing Tatum gives us an intense, supremely focused Mark, his best dramatic performance for me since Kevin MacDonald’s The Eagle and the early scenes where he’s struggling for money just to get by, while there’s an Olympic medal hanging in his meagre one-room apartment, are especially good.

And then there’s Steve Carell who’s absolutely phenomenal as du Pont. I’ve celebrated his incredible versatility as an actor in both comedy and drama in this blog but he’s on another level here and assured of an Oscar nomination or the ‘Best Actor’ award itself in March next year. His du Pont is so opaque, at once friendly and then vicious and it’s quite a stunning and subtle portrait of a man who on the surface seemed harmless but underneath was a very disturbing individual indeed.

In such a male-centric story, the two women in the cast make a quite formidable impression in the few scenes they have – Vanessa Redgrave brings a cool and regal quality to du Pont’s mother Jean, with him forever seeking her approval and her unwillingness to give it. And Sienna Miller gives us a warm and self-assured presence to Dave’s wife Nancy Schultz, who can only watch in horror when the terrible later events of the story unfold. I’m also reminded every time I watch Miller’s work on how superbly he uses sound and the choices he makes with this film, are no less accomplished than in Capote or Moneyball. Notice when he uses music – his regular composer Mychael Danna this time just contributes the recurring theme whilst Rob Simonsen skilfully takes over the main composing duties – and when he uses real sounds or silence; it’s quite exceptional.

When I came out from seeing this movie at its UK premiere, I tweeted ‘The superb third film from the brilliant Bennett Miller is the extraordinary FOXCATCHER – you must see it!’ so really all that’s left to say is… make sure that you do!