It's an encouraging sign for American filmmaking when directors can take a genre as conventional as the "sports drama" and spin it in fascinating new ways. Yesterday I discussed the music-related "Whiplash" as an unlikely sports drama and now with "Foxcatcher", we have a drama that's actually about sports but feels even less like one. It comes as no surprise that such a result would come from Bennett Miller, whose previous outing "Moneyball" was a similarly unique exploration of sports and human psychology.
"Foxcatcher" is the true story of the Schultz brothers, who were Olympic wrestlers throughout the 1980s. Both were gold medal winners, but their success never lead to fame and fortune. The younger brother Mark (Channing Tatum) is particularly miserable, living a lonely existence in a grungy home. The perfect opportunity arises ahead of the 1988 Olympic Games however, as a multi-millionaire named John du Pont invites Mark and his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) to live on his estate with access to his top-notch training facilities. Mark is quickly enticed by the opportunity but Dave declines, refusing to uproot his family. As Mark takes up the offer, he strikes a bond with John that seems to benefit both men, with John establishing himself as friend, father and mentor. However, John's insecurities begin to manifest itself in unanticipated ways, resulting in a dangerous situation for all three men.
Despite what the plot may indicate, audiences expecting to see the usual trajectory of a sports movie will likely be disappointed. "Foxcatcher" is undeniably an arthouse drama, heavily focused on character and mood. This "ripped from the headlines" story may be sensationalist, but the filmmaking is anything but.
Bennett Miller's direction is a masterclass in control. His scenes are patient and his visual language establishes a melancholy tone that never wavers, even in moments of jubilation. In some respects, "Foxcatcher" could even be considered a horror movie. For example, when Mark first arrives at the du Pont estate he's told not to go to the big house without permission, never to touch the horses and to stay away from the family's matriarch. Through Miller's direction these foreboding warnings are amplified further by the seemingly constant fog over the land and the gritty cinematography. The atmosphere washes over you and instills a sense of unease.
Indeed, "Foxcatcher" threatens to be an overly bleak, austere viewing experience. Thankfully, its ensemble is perfectly attuned to the director's sensibilities and is also able bring out the nuances of each character. The central trio (Tatum, Carell, Ruffalo) form an amazing dynamic with their distinct personalities. Tatum gives a brooding performance, wearing all his angst on his hulking body. As du Pont, Carell completely disappears into his role, giving a chilly and mysterious performance that's at times unnervingly impenetrable. It's truly an astonishing transformation for actor. Finally, there's the counterpoint of Ruffalo, whose Dave is the most relaxed and level-headed of them all. Together they bring out many of the film's best moments, especially in their one-on-one scenes. It's one of the best examples of great ensemble acting.
The foundation of all this brilliance however, is the film's sterling screenplay from E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman. Much of the film's appeal is due to the deep layers of subtext in the dialogue, as well as the way it conceives its characters. Vanessa Redgrave's performance is strong proof of this. Despite playing the minor role of the du Pont matriarch (John's mother), she's well served by the script, haunting the film like a visible ghost. When she does speak, her minimal lines tell you everything you need to know about the family's heritage and the sources of John's eccentric personality. All in all, this screenplay is just impressively dense, with clear character motivations which speak to the pressures of patriotic duty and familial legacy.
"Foxcatcher" is simply an outstanding achievement. From the evocative art direction of the du Pont estate to the sparse but purposeful score, there's character in every aspect of this film. Sports movies are often synonymous with Hollywood entertainment but here's one that is also a true work of art.
Of course, art movies sometimes struggle in the Oscar race but the filmmaking here is so thoroughly assured that it's sure to get some recognition. At the very least, the film will get a nod for Mark Ruffalo's work as Best Supporting Actor. Steve Carell also has a shot in Best Actor. Elsewhere, the film's other chances seem to be in Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. I know I'll certainly be rooting for the film in all these categories on Thursday. Don't disappoint me, AMPAS!