Winter is coming, and with it, Oscar season. It’s a time of year when studios stop screwing around with light popcorn-fare like “Dumb and Dumber Too” and start releasing their most Oscar-worthy productions. One of the biggest contenders for this year’s Academy Awards is Sony Picture Classics’ “Foxcatcher.” Based on a chilling true story, the film has been heralded at film festivals from Cannes all the way to Toronto. While it will almost certainly earn some Oscar nods in a few months’ time, “Foxcatcher” falls short being truly great.
“Foxcatcher,” based on a true story, examines John du Pont’s tragic relationship with Olympic Gold medal winning wrestlers Dave and Mark Schultz. The eccentric millionaire attempts to assemble an elite wrestling team by inviting Mark Schultz to the du Pont family estate, Foxcatcher Farm, in nearby Newtown Square, Pennslyvania. With the goal of winning gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, du Pont, Mark and the rest of the team train at a state of the art facility, funded by the enormous wealth of the du Pont family. Mark is trying to achieve greatness and match the achievements of his brother Dave while du Pont is trying to gain the respect of his peers and his mother.
All the events of the movie culminate with du Pont murdering Dave Schultz in cold blood. It was an incredibly big news story in 1996 and I expect that older people who lived through the events will be able to invest more easily in the story as it unfolds on screen.
It’s always a bit tough to maintain suspense and anticipation when the ending of the story is already known. Last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty” is one of the most recent films to successfully keep the audience engaged throughout. In the case of “Foxcatcher,” the shooting hangs over the film like a pall. Everyone in the audience knows it is coming but there was still a jolt through the crowd when it finally happened. With movies based on well-known events, it’s not the destination that the story reaches at the end; it’s the journey that gets you there that counts.
The acting is incredible in “Foxcatcher.” Steve Carell is effortlessly creepy as John du Pont. It’s off putting to see Carell play such a dark role, but he’s outstanding as he delivers his lines with an emotionless, almost robotic diction. Complete with a prosthetic nose, the end result is a disconcerting performance that gives the film’s proceedings an air of uneasiness. Channing Tatum plays the role of Mark Schultz, a sad, hulking brute that is on the total opposite end of the spectrum from the roles he plays in movies like “Magic Mike” and “21 Jump Street.” Adding more bulk on top of his already muscled frame, Tatum walks in a careful, stooped manner, almost like he is ready to grapple a combatant at any time.
However, to me, it is Mark Ruffalo who steals the show with his portrayal of Dave Schultz. Dave is the lynchpin of the entire movie as he tries to maintain the relationship between his brother, Mark and du Pont. Ruffalo provides a calm, levelheaded presence on screen, which offsets the extremes that Mark and du Pont often display. He is perfectly cast as the anchoring force to Tatum’s Mark, which is critical when considering du Pont’s motives for killing Dave.
Understanding the motivations behind the Schultz and du Pont is the crux of “Foxcatcher.” In real life, du Pont’s motive for the murder was never made clear and the movie does not illuminate much in that area either. Going into “Foxcatcher” with next to no knowledge of the actual events, I developed a rough idea of all the goings-on. After doing some online sleuthing though, the only thing that becomes clear is how unclear the circumstances of the crime really were. Director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Max E. Frye may have taken some creative liberties in deciding how to best tell this story in the same way that David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin did with “The Social Network.”
After having a lot of time to digest this movie, I am left unsatisfied, though I don’t think this movie is meant to please. I think that it is meant to be a dark, psychologically complex narrative that will act as a springboard to launch Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo to Oscar glory while at the same time firmly nestling itself in the Best Picture conversation. In that regard, it succeeds. But without the star power of those big name actors, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as accessible as it is. “Foxcatcher” is tantalizing Oscar bait for critics and Academy voters, but I doubt that it will get your average moviegoer on the hook.