Putting on a serious expression and wearing a prosthetic nose might sound like a calculated grasp for Oscar glory – if there’s one thing the Academy loves, it’s ‘transformative’ performances – but a few minutes in the company of Steve Carell’s John du Pont is enough to dispel any lingering wisps of cynicism.
A member of the richest family in America, du Pont took wrestling brothers Mark and David Schultz under his financial wing in the late 80s, with plans to lead his team, Foxcatcher, to gold-winning glory at the Seoul Olympics.
Foxcatcher’s first hour unfolds like an 80s-set Cinderella in leotards, as Mark steps, wide-eyed, from a down-at-heel life in a working class neighbourhood and into a spacious “chalet” on du Pont’s gigantic, eerily remote Pennsylvania estate. Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) makes Mark’s initial decision to abandon his older brother (not to mention coach and surrogate father) in favour of du Pont’s gilded training facility an understandable one – even if there’s something decidedly scary about du Pont and his beady eyes, hawk-like nose and vicious little teeth.
With Moneyball, Miller managed to turn a story about statistics in baseball into one of the most absorbing dramas of 2011. In the case of Foxcatcher, he turns another true story – one which many will likely be familiar with before entering the theatre – into a pressure cooker of dramatic tension. Through a series of long takes, stretches of silence and an autumnal colour palette, Miller builds up a palpable atmosphere of unease.
The volatile performances are consistently flawless. Carell’s performance is the attention-grabber, but Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are equally effective as Mark and David, whose relationship is both intimate and weighed down by sibling rivalry. Tatum’s Mark, in particular, is an engagingly lonely figure: mumbling and shuffling through ordinary life and eating bowls of uncooked instant noodles and ketchup before du Pont offers to oversee his training.
Initially both overwhelmed and emboldened by his good-fortune, Mark begins to crumble under the weight of his jealousy and self-doubt. Du Pont, on the other hand, is so confident in his adopted image as a sportsman and leader of men that he lapses into spasms of silent rage when reality fails to match his fantasy. The key to Carell’s hard-to-read, monstrous character lie in the handful of scenes he shares with his mother (played by Dame Vanessa Redgrave). Du Pont reveals himself as little more than a middle-aged child who regards his Olympic-class wrestling team as an exceedingly expensive train set. By coaching the team, du Pont hopes to earn the favour of his grandly remote mother, who sniffily regards wrestling as “a low sport.”
With his jackets embroidered with his nickname, The Gold Eagle – another title he’s bestowed on himself – du Pont prowls around the gym, observing his wrestlers while actually doing very little of use. And when he brings in older brother David to provide the real coaching, a rift grows between Mark and du Pont, and quietly festers.
Miller’s unobtrusively observant lens captures the nuances and brutal impacts of the drama and the sport itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in an early scene where we see Mark and his brother training together. Their wrestling is intimate and playful, but gradually shifts into something more bitter and stinging. It’s an example of what Foxcatcher does so well: it describes the familiarity and bitterness that lies between the brothers, wordlessly and without dramatic overstatement.
The rest of the film prowls along in the same way, providing symbols of du Pont’s obscene wealth – such as a comical moment where he buys an armoured personnel carrier from the army, and then throws a childish strop when he discovers that the machine gun isn’t still attached – and Mark’s desperation to step out of his older brother’s shadow. E Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s screenplay marries seamlessly with Grieg Fraser’s photography and Rob Simonsen’s minimal score, and the union is difficult to fault.
More like a retelling of Faust than sports drama, Foxcatcher explores what its brothers are willing to sacrifice in their grasp for success. And overseeing it all, like a manipulative Mr Miyagi, is Carell’s du Pont. At once pathetic and terrifying, he might just be the most hypnotic screen villain of recent years.
Foxcatcher is out in UK cinemas on the 9th January.
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