Is it possible for a movie to be fascinating, yet not entirely compelling? That was the question on my mind after seeing Foxcatcher.
Bennett Miller’s depiction of the events leading up to billionaire John du Pont murdering Olympic wrestler and coach Dave Schultz in 1996 opens in Asheville on Friday (Jan. 16). The timing probably couldn’t be better, one day after Foxcatcher scored five Academy Award nominations, including a Best Director nod for Miller, a Best Actor nomination for Steve Carell (who plays du Pont) and a Best Supporting Actor bid for Mark Ruffalo (who plays Schultz).
Initially, the movie drew notice when word of Carell playing a serious role and undergoing a physical (and prosthetic) transformation to play the delusional eccentric du Pont began to circulate. Personally, I found the make-up job on Carell distracting at times, like I was looking more at his fake nose than paying attention to his performance. But had Carell not done something to change his appearance, I’m guessing it would have an adjustment for audiences accustomed to him doing something funny.
To me, the revelation of Foxcatcher is Channing Tatum, who continues to surprise me as an actor with the choices he makes in roles and directors he chooses to work with, along with his developing skill on screen. It’s been difficult to dismiss him as a pretty face for a few years now. Frankly, I think he deserved an Oscar nod far more than Ruffalo, who does his usual great work, but his role just doesn’t have the same demands as Tatum playing Mark Schultz.
Schultz was an Olympic gold medalist who allowed himself to become completely defined by wrestling and his achievements or failures in that sport. The same focus that surely made him a world-class athlete hindered him socially. At the beginning of the film, we see Schultz making a speech to grade schoolers for 20 dollars (an audience he’s not particularly suited to speak to) and living in a dumpy apartment. Olympic glory hasn’t done much for him, but to attain it again is all he has.
Worst of all for Schultz is that he lives in the shadow of his older brother, Dave, also an Olympic champion, but who has found a second career as a valued coach and leader. Additionally, Dave has a family, a wife (an unrecognizable Sienna Miller) and two kids that have given him a purpose in regards to choosing the direction of his life and a reason to make decisions carefully, rather than impulsively. While Dave does have a protective impulse toward Mark, he does seem a bit clueless about how inferior his little brother often feels. Either that, or maybe deep down, the big brother likes being the big dog in the family.
Mark Schultz’s lack of affirmation is what presumably draws him and du Pont together. Du Pont wasn’t loved by his mother, had no friends growing up (which we learn in a rather heartbreaking anecdote), wasn’t athletically gifted and nothing close to the leader of men he believed himself to be. He was incredibly wealthy, and used his money to try and fill those inadequacies, which almost certainly gave him a warped perspective on how he was viewed by associates and the general public.
Du Pont certainly wants to be loved, whether by his mother or the wrestlers he tells himself he’s leading by opening an Olympic training facility on his estate. Mark Schultz wants the love that should come with Olympic glory, by being the best in his sport. He receives affirmation from du Pont, certainly more than he gets from his brother.
Meanwhile, Dave Schultz gets the love he needs from his family, and he seems comfortable with his accomplishments. Yet he also may enjoy being needed by his younger brother and by du Pont. At the very least, Schultz sees the billionaire as a means to an end. Perhaps realizing that is what eventually drove du Pont to shoot him in cold blood.
Yet Miller doesn’t seem entirely interested in answering the “why?” of this story. There’s certainly no “A-ha!” moment when du Pont’s character arc leads to a natural conclusion or his motives become clear. That might be frustrating to some viewers, keeping them at a distance, rather than pulling them in.
But to Miller’s credit, that lack of an answer is true to actual events. During du Pont’s arrest and subsequent trial, it was never learned why he suddenly turned homicidal and killed someone he was believed to respect, even idolize. His lawyers argued he was mentally ill, and a jury concurred — at least to an extent.
Foxcatcher is ultimately a character study, particularly of two men who don’t feel they’re taken particularly seriously — especially by those whom they look up to. Go to the theater for that premise and stay for the fine acting.