Director Bennett Miller may not make a lot of movies, but when he does his films seem destined for attention. He only has four to his credit including the critically acclaimed “Capote” and “Moneyball”. His latest is “Foxcatcher” and it has already caught the attention of critics and won several prizes on the festival circuit. Miller seems drawn to a special type of biopic. “Capote”, “Moneyball”, and now “Foxcatcher” are biographical dramas about people or relationships that are outside of the normal box.
Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) are close-knit brothers who have each won Olympic gold medals in wrestling. Mark, who seems a bit slow, lives in his older brother’s shadow. There’s an early scene where Mark is giving a less than rousing speech at an elementary school. Afterwards we get an exchange between him and the school secretary revealing that it was actually David who they invited to speak. David is the only person in Mark’s otherwise rudderless life.
Enter Steve Carrell as millionaire and wrestling enthusiast John du Pont. Carrell is almost unrecognizable in his facial prosthetics and awkward mannerisms. Du Pont invites Mark to join his Foxcatcher amateur wrestling team where he will coach and train for the Olympics. He will receive a big salary and his own lavish home on du Pont’s humongous estate. David declines to go with him, but he encourages Mark to go, believing it could be a really good thing for him. Mark joins Team Foxcatcher and over time develops a close relationship with du Pont.
A big chunk of the film focuses on the relationship between Mark and du Pont. Mark finally finds a place where he feels needed and important. He begins to see du Pont as a loving and caring father figure. On the other hand du Pont’s actions and motivations always seem a bit dubious. There is a disingenuous and self-serving air that follows him and at times Mark seems to be his personal and emotional experiment. Du Pont often manipulates and toys with the fragile-minded Mark.
The story shifts a bit after du Point turns on Mark and embarrasses him in front of other wrestlers. Du Pont then seeks out David and convinces him to join Team Foxcatcher which causes Mark to distance himself even more. The rest of the movie centers around the various conflicts between these three personalities – the butting of heads, the frustrations, the lack of trust. Miller presents the unfolding drama slowly and methodically and for the most part it works. The narrative is driven by these three characters and its easy to get caught up in this odd twisted story.
And since the film is driven by these three key characters, good performances are a necessity. We certainly get that. Carrell shows an entire new side and a diversity that he has hinted at in the past. Ruffalo has become one of Hollywood’s steadiest actors. Here he gives the most grounded performance of the three. But the big surprise for me was Channing Tatum. I know the guy has a huge following, but I have yet to be convinced that he is a good actor. Well, that was until now. He does great work handling a complex and pivotal character.
“Foxcatcher” isn’t a perfect movie but it’s a very good one. There are a couple of slow patches and the film doesn’t completely stick the ending. At the same time the story is always compelling and watching Carrell, Tatum, and Ruffalo engage this material is a treat. “Foxcatcher” has given Bennett Miller yet another chance to define himself as a filmmaker. This is a movie that definitely fits within his comfort zone and I just wonder what strange and unusual true story Miller is going to tell us next.