AFI Fest 2014: ‘Foxcatcher’ - Film Review

Reporting from 2014 AFI Fest presented by Audi

When I first moved to Los Angeles eight years ago, my roommate was a girl, so, as such, there were quite a few movies I watched that I would normally not have seen.  One was The Devil Wear Prada, in which Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci put on a clinic about great acting elevating shoddy material.  I saw The Devil Wears Prada many, many times.  Another was a little opus called Step UpStep Up is a dance movie, which means the dance sequences are lively and creatively staged, while the rest of the film that connects them together is pretty lousy.  An actor named Channing Tatum got his big break in that movie, and it’s a pretty marginal performance; he more or less stands around and waits until it’s his turn to talk.  There’s no emotional engagement other than that.  He’s a blank slate, albeit a very pretty blank slate.


The very good news is that over the past several years, Channing Tatum has really forged himself into an interesting actor who tackles a wide range of material.  Sure, he’s made his share of crappy romantic dramas (With a female fanbase like he’s got, it would be ill advised commercially to not take advantage.), but, for the most part, he’s been game to try anything and forged important working relationships with respected film artists like Steven Soderbergh (three times).  He does a mix of drama with comedy, and his comedic roles would indicate he’s not above allowing himself to look ridiculous.  His disgusting/amazing cameo in This Is the End proves he’ll likely do anything on film.  He’s got leading man looks, a sense of comic timing, and the athleticism to be an action star.  If he continues to collaborate with good people, he’s got a great career ahead of him.  If you hear people ripping on Channing Tatum as an actor, pay them no attention — they clearly aren’t paying attention.


Foxcatcher would be another winning collaboration with a strong director (Moneyball’s Bennett Miller this time) that marks what is, by far, Channing Tatum’s best work to date.  There’s a chance he may be overshadowed by another role in the film that’s more obviously actorly and showy, but Tatum clearly has the more difficult part, and he knocks it out of the park.


Tatum plays Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler and Gold Medalist at the 1984 games in Los Angeles.  Mark has been living in the shadow of his older brother Dave (also a Gold Medal winner and played by Mark Ruffalo).  The film opens in 1987 as Mark and Dave are training for the World Championships.  Mark lives in squalor, as most Olympians did back then.  This was before the IOC opened the Games up to professional athletes, so most have a full-time job to support themselves while training for their sport in their spare time.  Even today, that’s still the case for many who compete in the sports that exist outside the concern of ESPN.  


Steve Carrell plays John E. DuPont, heir to the DuPont chemical empire, then the wealthiest family in America.  DuPont wants to bankroll Dave and Mark and invites them to train at his facility in Pennsylvania.  Mark jumps at the chance, but Dave doesn’t want to uproot his family.  


DuPont is a weirdo with a deeply delusional sense of his own worth, as he is clearly trying to unsuccessfully live up to the his family lineage and a disapproving mother.  At first he and Mark bond over their shared, fractured childhood experiences, but the relationship quickly turns corrosive.  Soon, DuPont has paid Dave to join the program, with tragic results to follow.  The film is based on a true story, but judging from the shocked reaction the audience I saw it with displayed, many people may not know how this is going to end.  


The showier role I mentioned is DuPont, and I don’t say that to denigrate anything Steve Carrell has achieved here.  It’s well known in acting circles that comedy is harder to do than drama, so it’s always odd to me when audiences are amazed when an actor like Carrell, who’s almost surely still most well known for The Office, is able to nail a dramatic part like this.  Carrell is great, and, to be fair, this is quite unlike anything he’s ever done before.  There’s an innate likeability Carrell possesses, so even at his worst on The Office, Michael Scott was oddly endearing.  He’s buried that completely here.  His DuPont is creepy and off-putting from the second he enters the film.  Carrell completely disappears into the character and is largely unrecognizable.  Academy members love them some physical transformation, so we'll see how Carrell fares in awards season.  (For the record, he never won an Emmy for The Office.)


This makes me think people may overlook what Tatum does.  He is the dynamic character of the piece, the one whose point of view changes throughout the film.  Whether it’s Gene Kelly or Jet Li, actors with specific physical skill sets often seem to be overlooked as serious artists, which is silly.  Nobody in film history has been able to do what Gene Kelly could.  Tatum completely sells the wrestling, you always believe the guy is the best in the world.  He’s also almost totally silent, which means you have to be able to read what’s going on with just his face.  This is a big, physical, athletic performance, but it’s also played with great emotional subtlety.  He also bears a striking resemblance to Cael Sanderson.


Ruffalo is always good, and, like Tatum, he totally commits to the physicality of the sport, even shaving his hairline back to look like Dave Schultz.


In fact, all the wrestling portions are spot on, whether it’s depicting practice sessions or recreating Olympics matches.  Like Tom McCarthy’s high school wrestling film, Win Win, from a couple of years ago, Foxcatcher nails the authenticity of the sport.  Many sports films (and I don’t know that I’d go so far as the call Foxcatcher a “sports film”) play out as if their makers have never actually seen the sport their filming.  The '80s wrestling flick, Vision Quest, is a great example of getting all the little details wrong.  Foxcatcher gets it all right, which adds considerably to the audience’s understanding of these characters.


So, why didn’t I like it more than I did?  


Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good movie and I recommend it.  But, Sony Classics is clearly positioning this as an awards contender and for me, it just doesn’t do enough to really be great.  Based on the finished film, it’s unclear to me why anybody would want to tell a story that’s as unpleasant as this one ultimately is.  What’s the theme that ties all this together?  I didn’t need it to be like last year’s The Wolf of Wall Street which hit you over the head with its point for three solid hours.  Still though, I never got a sense of why Miller and his writers were drawn to this story.  Yes, it’s tragic, but to what end?  It’s a film that’s much easier to admire than to like, and, ultimately, I felt it was missing something that would have tied the whole thing together.  I’m curious to see how the wrestling community will react to it, as well.  The sport is well represented in a technical way, but it’s also an unflinching look at the darker side of elite competition.

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