Olympic Gold Medal winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is hand-picked by wealthy heir John du Pont (Steve Carell) to take up residence at his estate, to help form a team to train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Schultz seizes on the opportunity, hoping to focus on a second Olympic win, and step out of the shadow of his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). For du Pont, the arrangement is an opportunity to gain the elusive respect of his peers and, more importantly, his disapproving mother. Winner: Best Director at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: Accepted wisdom in Hollywood these days holds that ‘drama’ is something of a dirty word, not nearly as fascinating or alluring as either ‘genre’ or ‘superhero’, or even ‘teenage.’ (The greatest word of all, of course—the word to which all others aspire—remains ‘franchise.’)
All of which makes Bennett Miller the equivalent of God’s Lonely Man, doggedly advancing an unfashionable proposition: the virtues of nuanced, character-driven storytelling. His first fiction feature, Capote (2005), captured not only the extravagant public persona but also something of the elusive inner life of its subject, beautifully portrayed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. His second, Moneyball (2011), drew from Michael Lewis’ best-selling study of Oakland baseball manager Billy Beane, whose statistical, ‘sabermetric’ approach to team-building transformed the sport.
Neither are particularly sexy subjects, at least by the metrics of LA studio executives; both were gripping, exquisitely-made films. He’s fascinated by real-life stories, actual people—a bedrock of fact upon which he can construct something complex and ambiguous. His characters know themselves dimly, if at all, and tend to fumble toward their goals—their epiphanies are strictly small-scale, little triumphs of talent or obsession in a mostly indifferent world. He favours subtlety and understatement. He is patient, closely observant.
This one returns to the world of professional sports, but quickly deepens into something profound and disquieting: a meditation on American privilege that shades slowly into true-crime territory, becoming a distant relation to the likes of In Cold Blood and Quiz Show.Mark Schultz was a successful American wrestler, with an Olympic gold medal to his credit, from the 1984 games, and three world championships. He also enjoyed a complicated relationship with his brother Dave—older by a year, and a wrestler perhaps even more talented than himself. (Dave won gold at the same Olympics as Mark—the Schultzs were the first brothers to do so—as well as five World Cup championships.) Dave is more likeable, more socially adept, a blue-collar family guy and a good coach. Mark, by contrast, is tongue-tied, emotionally locked-down: a brooding, solitary pile of muscle. For years he has lived in his brother’s shadow.
And then out of nowhere comes a phone call, inviting him to meet with multi-millionaire John du Pont at his Foxcatcher estate in rural Pennsylvania. Once there, he learns that du Pont, a man almost messianically obsessed with ‘American greatness’, wants to sponsor his training: Mark can live in a lavish guest house on the property and work out, with a view to winning a second gold medal at the forthcoming 1988 Olympics, in Seoul. And in return, his rather directionless patron—who has previously dallied with ornithology and philately—gets to call himself an athletics coach.
For all his wealth and power—and the film is especially good at communicating the quiet authority of old money—du Pont understands that he is a disappointment to his imperious mother (played here, superbly, by Vanessa Redgrave). A scene in which he attempts to prove himself, demonstrating to her his coaching abilities in a bid to show that he is, in fact, a leader of men, must rank as one of the most excruciating in recent cinema. He’s physically unremarkable, emotionally stunted; he has no strength, either of body or of character. There’s also a sense—never overplayed—that he is conflicted about his sexuality. But most importantly he sees in Mark the same failings: both men are beta-males, living the shadow of someone they love and hate in equal measures. Both yearn to transcend their own shortcomings, and make a difference.
Before long, du Pont has Mark convince his brother to live at Foxcatcher too—which, you realise, had been his real objective all along. The resulting arrangement leaves everyone unhappy. Mark feels betrayed by John, and subordinated once again to Dave... who, for his part, resents owing his family’s security to this odd, capricious new benefactor. Du Pont, meanwhile, understands only too well that the respect he craves from both men is mere lip-service; in fact, they both fear and despise him. And when Mark underperforms in Seoul, his behaviour becomes steadily more unpredictable...
It’s a film of deceptive power; its effect is gradual and incremental. The screenplay, by longtime Miller collaborator Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye (Something Wild), is a masterpiece of inference and implication — there’s as much left unsaid, in every scene, as stated. The effect is a little like watching light glint prettily from the surface of a river, aware even as you do of the depths churning beneath. (Appropriately, Miller’s compositions make similar use of negative space.) And despite its 134-minute running time, there’s no flab, not a moment is wasted or superfluous.
Above all it boasts a trio of excellent actors, at the peak of their powers. After early promise (he was especially good in We Don’t Live Here Anymore), Mark Ruffalo had seemed to me to be coasting in recent years — though in fairness, he had the only interesting moment in The Avengers (‘I'm always angry’). But his Dave Schultz draws heavily on the actor’s own innate empathy and charm, and offers an uncondescending, believable portrait of a dramatically challenging figure: a man content with his lot, wanting not much more than what he has. As the resentful, perpetually disappointed Mark, meanwhile, Channing Tatum more than confirms the promise of 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike. Dismissed as a mere hunk at the start of his career (anyone remember Step Up?), he’s rapidly becoming one of the most interesting actors of his generation.
But the finest performance here is the quietest. Fitted with a prosthetic nose over his own, not-inconsiderable beak, with his chin slightly raised at all times and his eyes narrowed, and his voice a thin, dry rasp, comedian Steve Carrell is almost unrecognisable. His John du Pont seems otherworldly, like something recently exhumed; his face seems not made-up so much as coated in tomb-dust. And his extreme, preternatural stillness commands the frame. It’s a transformative part, though one which plays to Carrell’s particular strengths: you need a comedian’s timing to make the most of his lines, as when he instructs Mark not to call him ‘sir’ any longer. (They’re friends, are they not? Henceforth, ‘Golden Eagle’ will suffice.)
Unexpectedly, but not undeservedly, Bennett took away the Best Director award at Cannes, against heavyweights like Mike Leigh and the Dardenne brothers and Andrey Zvyagintsev. It seemed especially apt, given that his refined mise-en-scene represents a kind of ideal midpoint between the American mainstream and the European arthouse. He uses the camera fluently but never showily, and shoots the wrestling sequences here in long, uncluttered takes, so as to convey a sense of the complexity of the sport (and the contests look absolutely convincing) while, in aesthetic terms, crafting a kind of tone-poem from the choreography and collision of bodies in space, à la Claire Denis's masterpiece Beau Travail. His control of tone, meanwhile, is uncanny, and unfaltering.
Interestingly, this film was bankrolled largely by Oracle heiress Megan Ellison, under the banner of her Annapurna production company. You sense the irony of funding a work about the alarming consequences of patronage would not have been lost upon her. But considering her filmography to date (which includes The Master, Her, Zero Dark Thirty and American Hustle), she seems as unlike John du Pont as it’s possible to be, a rare example of using Medici-like wealth for the benefit of artists and the good of the culture.