Chokeholds Down on the Farm
Foxcatcher, the hauntingly quiet new film from Bennett Miller, is about wrestling just as much as what wrestling is about: power, physicality, and isolation. The story is strange and grows stranger. Based on true and tragic events, it begins after the 1984 Olympics, where Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) and his younger brother Mark (Channing Tatum) won gold medals in different weight classes. They’re in the middle of training for Seoul in Utah when Mark receives a phone call from John E. Du Pont (Steve Carrell), of the Du Pont chemical fortune, asking that he and his brother train on his large estate outside of Philadelphia. Dave is tied to a wife (Sienna Miller) and kids, but Mark, single, impressionable, and devoted, accepts this obscure invitation.
Mark’s quick decision seems irrational until it becomes plausible. Before journeying into the unknown, he navigates a gloomy existence in a subdued opening, making speeches to elementary kids about his gold medal before driving to his training center. He jabs the air and shuffles his feet to warm up, graduating to larger wrestling dummies and then his brother. They slap and grapple into frustrated locks. Mark returns to his drab home to eat alone in an eerie silence, somber notes sustained throughout the film. Miller has not chosen to exude the adrenaline the sports genre typically requires. This is a deeper deconstruction, one filled with marginalized athletes, facilities, and egos, given shelter within an atmosphere that shifts from funereal to horrifying.
It takes its time though, and the slow evolution towards the 1988 Games builds on many moments of insecurity and hesitant comedy. John helicopters Mark onto his farm that he’s called “Foxcatcher” and shows him around the mansion, introducing his living quarters and wrestling barn. John speaks with his head tilted upward as if to see above his beaked nose, protruding from a nearly undistinguishable Carrell. He wants to be considered an ornithologist, a philanthropist, and most importantly a patriot, speaking to Mark in short spurts, interrupting sentences with pauses and questions. He’s not exactly proposing a mentorship for Mark. John is not a wrestling coach, nor deeply familiar with the sport itself. He’s just looking for a vague renown and hopes the Schultz brothers will lead him to glory.
Dave needs more convincing to uproot his family and move them across the country but eventually the team relocates. A triangular power structure emerges, filled with undertones of paternalism and jealousy. John showcases Mark at charity events speaking with fatherly rhetoric, even introducing him to cocaine, granting Mark autonomy from his brother’s shadow while simultaneously forming another one. “I’m giving them a dream, I’m giving America hope,” says John at one point. When Dave re-enters the picture, Mark has become estranged, a different wrestler. Their hugs on the mat have an aggressive affection and John stares at them from afar, patrolling the perimeter with his awkward gait. The mystery of this movie is not knowing what these men are thinking. You sense wrestling—its mingling of bodies and wills– has become not so much a sport but an ugly catharsis of social and sexual frustration.
That’s likely why John’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave), the matriarch of the estate and an esteemed horse breeder, considers wrestling a “low sport.” Her son’s accomplishments and trophies have little value. The palpable tension and condescension she brings with her is both torturous and drives John to continue his Olympic pursuits. She steals a scene when she rolls her wheelchair in to watch practice. John immediately halts the workouts and prepares a spontaneous speech, talking in platitudes that have no context and no practical application. You realize this is not a team endeavor. His mother wheels out mid-speech unimpressed and John abruptly ends his misplaced propaganda. He’s playing a game nobody else is.
A lot of people are going to be surprised by this Steve Carrell, the same man who gurgles nonsense in Anchorman and Dinner For Schmucks. He doesn’t have the dramatic resume a comedian like Robin Williams did but he’s given us glimpses, enough for this performance to not be so shocking. That’s not downplaying his efforts here. His roles in Little Miss Sunshine, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Way, Way Back, and as Michael Scott in The Office offer variations of psychologically damaged, depressed characters. They all seem to be anticipating this intense incarnation, eventually more monster than man. Anytime he expresses warmth it’s as though he’s disguising its real chill. In one scene, he sits in his chair, scrutinizing a manipulated documentary he’s made of himself. His house is filled with America’s past and Miller tempts you to compare the founding fathers in the picture frames with the one on the screen.
But Miller doesn’t take a strong side in this affair, which slowly plods along as it enhances the suspense. It’s another biographical account after Capote and Moneyball, trying to crack open people who stray away from the mainstream. This one feels burdened to stay within a gloomy cloud. His films, like Foxcatcher’s soundtrack, are soft and sparing and rely on good acting. Tatum uses his physicality but channels a disturbed, quiet athlete searching for guidance. Miller uses a long shot of him dipping and dodging in the infinite front lawn to exaggerate his condition. Ruffalo, who deserves more screen time, at points carries the movie, and his large forehead, beside the mat. He plays mediator between brother and financier, negotiating his personal bonds and professional duties. A lot is happening without anyone saying a word.
It’s particularly effective when they fly to Seoul. After a disappointing opening round, Mark heads back to his hotel room and gorges on room service, frustratingly slamming his head into a mirror. Dave hustles him to the gym and puts him on the bike to shed the extra pounds before the next weigh-in. John hovers outside the door, constantly looming over his prized fighter. In that moment Miller zooms in tight to Mark, pedaling voraciously out of focus, his brother offering quiet motivation behind him. The bike is stationary but you imagine Mark is actually trying to ride away, trying to escape the tragically blurred depictions of intimacy and hostility. He’s trying not to lose more than just pounds.