Of the many terrific films released during the awards season last year, none were quite as unusual and unsettling as Bennett Miller’s ‘Foxcather’. Based on a true story set in the highly private world of professional wrestling and garnered with numerous accolades and nominations, it’s one of those films that’s almost impossible to describe accurately, but one that haunts you long after the credits roll. What Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman have crafted is a story and characters so strange they could only come from real life.
Set in the late 1980s, the film follows the relationship between the Schultz brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo), both Olympic Wrestling gold medallists, and millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell). du Pont sets up his Foxcatcher Estate as an elite training facility, determined to coach and foster the next olympic wrestling team. He woos first Mark and then Dave to his cause, but as damaged Mark begins to look to du Pont as a mentor and surrogate father, their relationship develops into something dangerously uncomfortable.
‘Foxcatcher’ is one of those rare films you could write pages and pages on because of how rich a film it is. Miller won Best Director at Cannes and an Oscar nomination for his work on the film, and its easy to see why in every frame. What he’s crafted is a sombre, densely psychological film about damaged men literally colliding against one another. While most films try to hide or ignore the poison hiding under the surface of masculinity, ‘Foxcatcher’ rips the skin off and leaves it exposed and ugly. It unfolds with the certainty of a tragedy towards its inevitable climax, one made inevitable by the depth of violence inherent in all three men. While Dave has come to control and understand it, Mark suffers from some unknown trauma too great for him to handle, and falls into the palms of dangerous and delusional du Pont, who takes full advantage of the willingness of this young man to follow him into battle. Against the sombre autumnal landscapes in Greig Fraser’s cinematography, we watch these figures collide, whether as acts of salvation or fury. From a purely technical standpoint, ‘Foxcatcher’ is a masterpiece - beautifully paced, gorgeously shot and tonally perfect. One might take issue with its lack of female characters or a female perspective, but what Miller concerns himself with here is the fundamental dangers and fractures in masculinity, particularly when in the empty wake of an achievement. So many films spend so much time celebrating being men being men to the point of tedium that an intelligent examination of masculinity like ‘Foxcatcher’ feels necessary and refreshing.
Much has been made of Steve Carell’s transformative performance as du Pont, but as superb as he is (and he is unnervingly superb), ‘Foxcatcher’ is very much an ensemble film, with all five central performances as impressive as each other. Even buried under prosthetics, Carell crafts du Pont into a childish, unnerving figure, like a bomb always on the edge of explosion. You can’t relax when du Pont is on screen, because Carell’s performance drips with the promise of something terrible about to happen. While Carell’s face has altered for the film, Ruffalo and Tatum have transformed and altered their bodies and physicality to startling effect, moving with brute grace and precision. Their opening training session is as mesmerising as dance, and mysterious in its intimacy. Ruffalo has never been better, the calm heart of the storm who leads with a careful gentleness. And any question of Tatum’s talent is blown away by his career-defining performance as Mark, painful to watch with the depths of pain and confusion he finds in the part. If Carell fills you with dread and Ruffalo fills you with hope, it’s Tatum that breaks your heart. Sienna Miller carves one hell of an impression as Dave’s wife Nancy, who stands as impressive and vital as her husband in making the dynamics of their family work, and with only a few minutes in the film, Vanessa Redgrave is breathtaking and horrifying as du Pont’s mysterious mother Jean. Each of these five performances are integral to the success of ‘Foxcatcher’ and only add further detail and complexity to it.
Bennett Miller has crafted is a sombre, densely psychological film about damaged men literally colliding against one another.
I don’t even feel like I’ve scratched the surface with this review of ‘Foxcatcher’. Revisiting it for the Blu-ray release, I was struck even more by its complexity, by its insistence on acting as observer to this tragic story and offering it to the audience to make of it what they will. This is a mighty film, rich and unnerving, and one that leaves you feeling haunted long afterwards. Films as great as ‘Foxcatcher’ do not come along often enough.
PICTURE & SOUND
This sombre 1080p 1:85:1 transfer beautifully captures the visual texture of ‘Foxcatcher’, which was shot on 35mm. While the organic grain structure holds it back from being as sharp as say a Marvel film, the detail in the image is staggering. Take a look at any close-up of Carell, and you’ll be blown away by the sight of every pour on his transformed face. The saturated colours and textures are all maintained from the film, making this a subdued but impressive video presentation. The same can be said for the reserved DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, which recreates the carefully crafted sound of the film. Dialogue is always clear, and while it holds back on most occasions, rare moments find the track packing a significant punch.
There are only two features on offer - ‘The Story of Foxcatcher’ (16:20), a short look at the development and making of the film, and two deleted scenes (5:13) that while interesting aren’t integral. There’s some wonderful stuff in the featurette, particularly about the relationship between the film and the professional world of wrestling, but this is one film I would have loved to hear a commentary or further discussion on. While the three men are discussed at length, Sienna Miller is only briefly touched on and Redgrave isn’t mentioned at all. ‘Foxcatcher’ is a film that certainly speaks for itself, but it’s also a riddle that would have welcomed deeper discussion.