There have been many films made about wrestling and even moreso about America’s ruling elite, and Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is perhaps one of the most muted and sombre evocations of both subjects in recent years, trading a wild and excessive approach with something decidedly methodical, unassuming and understated. In some respects, it bears many thematic similarities to The Wolf of Wall Street, with its study of wealth and madness, and Behind The Candelabra, the latter mirroring the power dynamics between Steve Carell’s über-rich corporate titan John Eleuthère du Pont and Channing Tatum’s muscular yet emotionally insecure Olympian wrestler Mark Schultz. At one point, you start guessing whether du Pont’s getting a boner over the sight of man-and-muscle physical combat on the floor, but Miller subtly suggests this deeply suppressed homoeroticism without over-selling the topic.
Here, the excess, vanity and power-driven politics of the ruling rich take central spotlight in this tragic real life narrative whereas the wrestling bit takes a backseat. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the billionaire du Pont, after realising his own personal downfall and failure in acquiring the very profession that he so publicly desires, gunned down Dave Schultz, Mark’s older brother and wrestling coach, on his driveway. It’s a sensational story grabbed from the headlines, but Miller’s take is anything but rabble-rousing. His is a subdued storytelling, putting character and human psychology first before high drama or histrionics. Foxcatcher is laced with the same frostiness and bleak bite as Miller’s first feature, the Oscar-calibre Capote, and even this film is about wrestling, it never gets bogged down by the montage-ridden de rigueurs of your typical sports movie and deftly narrowing its focus on the ominous relationship between the three players.
And what could be a mere Oscar bait, Foxcatcher turns the conversation around, giving us a clutch of electric performances starting with Channing Tatum, whose leaden-lunk persona takes an all-too convincing façade to a bulldozer-load of insecurity, beating himself up when things don’t get up to satisfaction. This is a performance that obliterates any doubts to Tatum as a dramatic actor. Mark Ruffalo also impresses with a character dimension as the stoic and protective brother, threatened with by the power status of the new sponsor. But the real deal here is Steve Carell – this man known for his funny bone rather than his dramatic art reveals layers of depth despite being buried by thick prosthetic make-up. Carell is near-unrecognisable at first, but that can only be a good thing as we are distanced away from the comic visage and focus instead on the quietly sinister, monumentally delusional chemical industrialist and wrestling-coach wannabe. The sadness and tragedy of this man seem to root from an unhappy childhood, a domineering mother and the corrosive belief that money can buy everything he desires at a mere whim, including talent. The accomplishment of being a wrestling coach is his Rosebud, and the failure of attaining such credential has driven this man, despite having everything, to madness and crime.