Foxcatcher (2015) – Review

Wrestling movies.  There aren’t all that many of them, and fewer that are actually any good.  With all the buzz surrounding Bennett Miller’s new film, a dramatic account of wrestler Mark Shultz’s (Tatum) relationship with wrestling coach John Du Pont (Carell) at his eponymous Foxcatcher training facility, it’s bound to be compared to the best.  One would probably look to The Wrestler as an immediate comparison, with it being so recent and setting the bar so high, yet the film that really keeps on cropping up while watching Foxcatcher is the brilliantly gripping Warrior.  The sibling rivalry, the absent father figures, the general dark, solemn themes and narrative movements bring the two films together, a bit like brothers, and while Foxcatcher sadly doesn’t quite hit the same emotional level, it’s at least reminding us of these films and still has a lot to offer.

It’s a film all about faces and physicality.  It’s about the actors’ expressions, their movements, their mannerisms, each one so distinct.  Whether it’s Tatum’s gorilla-like pout, Ruffalo’s slack-handed lurching or Carell’s rigid, prosthetic sternness, the performances are all so overt and intrusive.  While that could potentially pose problems if it became too much of a distraction, in this case it tends to supplement the performances rather than hinder.  Occasionally contrivances pop up, where we get the feeling they’re playing it just a bit too on the nose, but generally everyone involved is terrific.

The big talking point in terms of the casting of Foxcatcher is Steve Carell, which will only increase now that he’s earned a best actor nomination from the Oscars.  As an otherwise comedic actor who’s best known for saying “I love lamp” and not knowing where he got a hand grenade, sticking him at the centre of such a sombre and darkly dramatic biographical piece might seem like an odd decision.  But like all great actors, he displays versatility, and he’s shown us in the past that he’s more than up to the challenge of skewing away from comedy and his ostensible comfort zone with terrific turns in Little Miss Sunshine and The Way, Way Back.  He shouldn’t win the gold statue, but it’s exciting to think about where he might go next.

Also nominated in the best director category is Bennett Miller, for reasons not particularly hard to fathom.  The director of Moneyball and Capote – there’s a definite ashen theme there – has a really distinct way of composing his images, where everything is so tidy and organised, and he builds incredible atmosphere through meticulously planned out details carefully placed within the frame.  Everything we see we know is there for a reason, whether it’s the aforementioned expressions on the actors’ faces or a blurred out prop in the background.  It all serves a purpose.  Yet such strictness doesn’t come without a price, and that price is a narrative bereft of emotion and empathy.  While the dialogue and themes and relationships between the characters are all compelling, we don’t really feel anything towards them or care about their well-being, which is a problem that doesn’t quite ruin the film, but leaves us always begging for more.  Going back to Warrior, the reason it’s ahead of Foxcatcher is because it has all of that as well as a powerful emotional core.

So there’s a lot to sink your teeth into here.  For some people it’s worked terrifically well, but it’s easily to lose patience with.  You just need to be willing to spend some time with it, and wear a thick coat to counteract the lack of warmth.  Foxcatcher is a slow-burner, very methodical in its build up and controlled in its denouement, and a constant subverter of expectations.  Although it’s based on a true story, we never quite know where it’s going from minute to minute and it refuses to play to conventions.  While it needs a fire lit underneath it and a shot of something to just pull the audience in that bit more, this is often impressive and always earnest filmmaking.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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