Whoever said Steve Carell can’t do drama deserves to have their brains inverted. With Foxcatcher, the latest film from director Bennett Miller, Carell proves that he can not only do drama effectively, he can also orchestrate around him a symphony of suspense and dread, as if he were a maestro of death. He is so delightfully eerie in this film, so distant and blank, that whenever he glides on screen we’re not sure if he’s going to high five someone or stab them in the neck.
He plays John Du Pont, multimillionaire, ornithologist, philanthropist, fervent patriot, sports enthusiast. He also enthusiastically sports a nose that’s a few inches shy of a dorsal fin. He lives on Foxcatcher Farm, which we learn in an opening montage of archival footage once hosted prestigious horse and dog events. Indeed, John’s mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), prizes her thoroughbreds more than she does her own son. Granted, if my son was like John I too would push for the legalisation of equine adoption.
The property is a sprawling 3.2km squared and accommodates “the big house”, the stables, a standalone gym and training facility, acre upon acre of lush greenery, and a chalet, which is currently bigger than my house. The camera doesn’t pick up other corners of the land, but I am sure there’s an arsenal somewhere too, and perhaps a graveyard.
Du Pont believes in America and believes even more that for America to prosper she has to succeed at sports, particularly at wrestling, particularly at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
To achieve this he hires former gold medalist, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who lumbers about as if angry with life and whose face has the cut of Kurt Angle’s (also a gold medal wrestler). Mark is a good athlete, as his wall of trophies will vouch for, but not as good as his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who can use three moves to defeat an opponent where Mark will use seven. Carell is so good at playing the conniving Du Pont that even though he welcomes Mark to his estate with open arms, we know he’d secretly prefer Dave. What’s sad about this is that Mark, determined to wriggle free from his brother’s shadow, suspects what we suspect, but goes along for the ride and is soon engulfed by Du Pont’s patriotism, wealth, and passion.
The movie is essentially about Mark’s and Du Pont’s road to the Olympics, but it’s more cerebral than most sports stories, and more disturbing than most crime thrillers. The key cog in the whole machine is Dave, who ignites events, stirs controversy, mitigates hostilities. He is the medium. And really, he’s the only sane one. Bound by his responsibilities to his family, he is able to freely see situations from a distant standpoint, so that he can at once determine entry points and escape possibilities. He suffers a brief lapse in foresight later in the film, however, which proves costly.
Mark, conversely, has tunnel-vision. He is so determined to break free and find success on his own that he remains blind to the perils of the big picture. Observe him in the closing scene. What is he thinking? What is he feeling, given the events that have just transpired? Does he not care?
Du Pont, well, he is an enigma. When I first saw him I was trying to forget that Steve Carell was behind all that makeup. By the end, I learnt nothing new about his character, except that no measure is too drastic. I’m willing to bet that no one who sits through Foxcatcher can successfully break Du Pont’s hardened exterior. The only time we see the human being behind his robotic shell is when he talks to his mother about his old train set, and later tries to dazzle her with his borrowed knowledge of grappling holds and submission manoeuvres. She is none too impressed. The rest of the time, he’s as cold and treacherous as a winter blizzard.
Foxcatcher is directed by Bennett Miller, whose films have carefully rested on true events and needled at the souls of tormented individuals. His brilliant Capote (2005) placed its hero in a vice of guilt that he took with him to his grave. Moneyball (2011), which I consider to be the greatest of his four films, showed how pluck, gall, and will can overpower fear and indecision. And now he gives us Mark, Dave, and Du Pont, a kind of Three Stooges for the criminally insane. All three men are burdened and fractured by various afflictions. No one confides. No one shares. Everything’s bottled up and allowed to fester. Naturally, what festers must erupt. And it does.
Note: The film is absolutely grim and gloomy. Very rarely do we see a smile. There’s no joy, no cheer. If you see Foxcatcher, you might want to catch a comedy after, you know, to reinstate your emotions.
Best Moment | Mark’s impetuous outburst in his hotel room, and Dave’s subsequent response. What Dave does best is understand his brother perfectly.
Worst Moment | The misleading homoerotic scene involving cocaine, hair-trimming, a massage, and playfulness.