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Foxcatcher: piercing, shattering, spellbinding

Steve Carell’s nose alone deserves an Oscar in this taut American thriller

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

Foxcatcher

15, Nationwide

Foxcatcher is a crime drama (of sorts) that has already been dubbed ‘Oscarcatcher!’ as it barely puts a foot wrong. It is tautly directed, deftly written, thoroughly gripping and offers psychological heft as well as sublime performances all round, even from Steve Carell’s prosthetic nose, which deserves a nomination in and of itself. (Schnozzle of the year?) It’s also based on a fascinating true story, although the less you know about this story, particularly how it ends, the better. I would even advise you to stop reading right now, but I need the money, plus the abuse in the comments section below. My life wouldn’t be worth living without that. How would I even know I was alive?

This is a tale (sort of) about two American brothers, Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), who were both freestyle wrestlers, and who both won gold at the Olympics in 1984. The film opens a couple of years after that, with Mark, who is the younger, and is now reduced to showing his medal to children in schools for $20, and lives by himself in a grim apartment where he dines on microwaved meals. Tatum plays Mark with an ape-like gait and a jutting lower jaw, but also with such an extraordinarily sensitive energy we know Mark is feeling what he can’t express; that just because he says little, and can’t articulate his loneliness and desire, it doesn’t mean neither are there. He still regularly meets with his brother for a wrestle — a weird kind of dance that is both tender and bloody — but his brother has moved on and is now a successful coach with a family. (His wife is played by Sienna Miller, who is given very little to do, and does not have anything interesting going on in the nose department, just so you know.)

FOXCATCHER_STILL-03
Channing Tatum and Steve Carell

This is the situation when John du Pont (don’t Google him; don’t!), as played by Carell, comes on to the scene. He is the billionaire scion of an industrialist family who, out of the blue, calls Mark, inviting him to come out to Foxcatcher Farm, his 800-acre Pennsylvania estate where he wants to establish a state-of-the art wrestling facility to help him win another gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Carell has been startlingly transformed for the role, with a putty-face, gummy teeth and that tremendous schnozzle; the schnozzle you would know John had in real life, if you were to look him up, which you won’t. It is distracting at first — is that really Carell? — but he quickly earns that nose, using it to sniff the air, taunt the air, and snort up cocaine, spellbindingly. John’s wealth has cushioned him from having to connect with the real world, or properly relate to anyone. He speaks in non sequiturs. ‘I am an ornithologist,’ he tells a perplexed Mark, ‘but, more importantly, I am a patriot.’ He is troubled and creepy but so rich everyone bends to his will, as does Mark, who is seduced by the facilities, the luxurious living accommodation, a big cheque. John also wants Dave but Dave resists. ‘You can’t buy Dave,’ Mark tells him. John sniffs the air. John does not understand ‘no’. Still, and as it turns out, everyone does have their price.

As directed by Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball), there is no deafening score (hurrah!) and no breathless, two-hour single tracking shot (ditto!). This is slowly, slowly, catchy, catchy; an intimate three-man character study filled with tension, which subtly explores the psychology of each without ever spelling it out. John is a repressed homosexual (probably) who has mummy issues and wants Mark to be the son he never was. Mark, at least initially, wants John to be the father he never had. (Dave raised him.) Dave, a thoroughly decent human being, wants to protect Mark, and understands John for who he is, but can’t escape. All this is implicit, aside, perhaps, from the mummy issues, which, actually, are rather spelled out, which is why, up top, I said ‘barely puts a foot wrong’ instead of ‘never puts a foot wrong’. The mummy issues are rather pat, but possibly only salient because the rest is so nuanced. As for the wrestling, there is some of that, but not to excess, which is a relief. (John’s mother refers to wrestling as ‘a low sport’ and I am minded to agree. John’s mother is played by Vanessa Redgrave, who is also given little to do, but does it so fiercely it doesn’t much matter that she has a boring nose.)

This is a film that, in its way, takes on American values, the corrupting power of wealth, and existential despair, yet throbs with the underlying hum of a thriller, and a mounting sense of dread that something tragic and terrible is about to happen, as it does. I will only say of the ending: it is piercing. It is shattering. Don’t look it up.


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