Scattered Thoughts on Foxcatcher

FOXCATCHER

(This piece will wind up discussing plot details of Foxcatcher, as well as the true events upon which the film is based, about which you can learn more here. Because the events are a matter of judicial record, it’s tough to consider them spoilers as such, but still, heads up.)

• At what point does a famous actor in a prosthetic stop being a famous actor in a prosthetic? Is it even possible to take such larks seriously after they were lampooned in Ocean’s Thirteen? Steve Carell is much more convincing in certain moments here than I’d expected him to be — call it the unintended benefit of casting a comic in his first serious role; the bar is lowered a rung — but it’s also all but impossible to stop thinking of his performance as “Steve Carell in a fake nose.”

• The simian grace with which Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo inhabit their roles as wrestlers is perfectly done without ever going overboard. They walk with a tensed hunch, often with their elbows bent slightly, so their arms are never quite down at their sides. They’re always ready to spring forward into an attack. It’s a small but nicely done physical detail.

• For a film about wrestling, Foxcatcher is surprisingly ambivalent about the body, and about the power of touch. There’s only one scene where we really feel the bodies at work, and it comes early on, as Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) Schultz are sparring in the gym. The way their heads touch as they get set, the way they move their arms weave together and come apart; the way their sibling dynamic is made tactile in their grappling, and the way Mark’s sense of frustration and jealousy comes out in his increased speed and aggression, ultimately bloodying Dave’s nose. The way Dave shakes his head, blows the blood from his nose one nostril at a time, and returns to a crouched stance before reengaging his brother. It’s the best sense we get in the entire film of these men’s bodies as machines that they construct and use to their own purpose. What few wrestling matches we do see are tied to different senses of accomplishment or failure, and that’s understandable, but it also means they could be anything: card matches, foot races, cooking classes, crossword puzzles. It’s the sense of bodies in proportion to each other that makes the film work whenever it does.

• Ruffalo is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Carell here: he’s buried in glasses and a hairpiece, he walks with a hunch and talks with a lilt, but he never once feels like he’s putting on a costume. He’s so perfectly confident in his role: never showboating, never greedy with moments, never trying to stand out as a supporting player. He’s just natural. I submit that this is the hardest thing for any performer to do, and that Ruffalo does it a lot, and that he’s such a good actor we tend to forget how good he can be.

• The movie is based on true events, which is its downfall. This is the problem: even something based on a true story still needs to be a story. There are plenty of ways to actually tell a story on film, but there’s a shoddiness to the structure here — a kind of imperviousness to the nature of the tragedy at the film’s core — that makes it feel weak and random. The film charts Mark’s relationship with sponsor and benefactor John duPont (Carell), and Mark eventually flees duPont’s Foxcatcher Farms compound to get away from the shadow of his brother and the memory of the latest father figure to abandon him. Dave stays on to train the rest of the team. One day after John’s mother has died, leaving John searching for a place to put his neediness, John drives down to Dave’s house on the property and shoots him to death. John is apprehended. Mark, we see, has made his way to ultimate fighting, which was viewed with some disdain by the wrestlers earlier in the film.

Then it ends.

A few brief title cards aside, detailing the later lives of Mark (living in Oregon) and John (died in prison), the film has no more to offer. John’s murder of Dave remains senseless, impenetrable, random, frustrating. It was all those things in real life, and director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) seems to want to keep things that way. His structure definitely underscores the cruelty of the killing, but it also leaves us yearning for something more: some kind of insight, some sense of drama, some sketching out of the way lives can become intertwined in a way that leads to tragedy. But the film withholds those things, and it’s my contention that it does so — that it’s allowed to do so — because it’s based on real events.

A death like Dave’s is heartbreaking in real life, but here, it’s narratively senseless. At best, John’s sense of inadequacy was exacerbated by his mother’s death, and having no one left to validate him and no idea of what to do, he went a little mad and decided to murder one of the few people he’d let into his life. Dave is portrayed as much stronger than Mark — decisive and committed where his brother is uncertain and flighty — and his willingness to stand up to duPont was something John didn’t experience that often. Still, though, I feel like I’m working backward from the film’s actions to justify its methods, when it should be the other way around. There’s not a lot of drive here for John, and certainly not enough to push him to murder. Rather, it’s just out of the blue. He was intimidated by Dave’s presence and resentful of the younger man’s natural athleticism and leadership, and on some level he likely viewed him as an obstacle toward John’s control of the team. But the film is light on this. It feels like we’re supposed to infer a few things and then do some reading and possibly consult the film’s marketing and promotional materials. And in interviews, yes, Miller and cast talk a good game about the characters and their motives. But filmmakers don’t get to stand up in front of the audience after each screening and bolster their argument. Everything has to be up on the screen, and here, it doesn’t feel like that. There’s not enough here to make the movie stand on its own.