There’s a scene in Bennett Miller’s new film, Foxcatcher, that I can’t figure out. It’s an early scene, one of the first in the film, and it has dominated my mind since I saw the film some days ago. At the start of Foxcatcher, we’re introduced to a large, solemn man who we come to learn is Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). Mark doesn’t say a lot, but in these introductory scenes, there’s really no need to. He eats ramen noodles in his dingy apartment, struggles through a speech to elementary school kids, then goes to work out at the gym. And here’s the scene I want to talk about. Mark arrives at the gym and as he makes his way through the locker room, many of the other wrestlers look at Mark disapprovingly. Miller doesn’t linger on the shot, but it’s clear that when Mark enters the room, a shift in tone occurs.
I don’t want movie characters to explain themselves. Typically, the films that make the most money every year are filled with characters who, when they’re angry, they verbalize why they’re angry. When they’re happy, they tell you why they’re happy. When they’re sad, you’ll get an explanation. And on and on. This oversimplification of emotion dilutes films for me. I have close friends, people I’ve known for years, that I still can’t figure out. I have friends who are happy one day for no apparent reason, then depressed the following day. That’s life. Feelings change, guards stay up and we rarely explain exactly how we feel at every given moment, usually because we ourselves can’t explain it. On film, I call that depth. I call it mystery and reverence. I pay attention to film characters I don’t fully understand. I’m intrigued by them. They feel real, alive. In the open.
This is a common thread in Bennett Miller’s work: why do people act the way they do? Never has this theme been better explored by Miller than it is in Foxcatcher. Soon after the locker room scene, Mark gets a call from a man representing the eccentric millionaire, John du Pont (Steve Carell). Du Pont wants Mark to move to his expansive Foxcatcher estate in Pennsylvania and train full time to become the best wrestler in the world. But why? We’re never really given a clear reason as to why du Pont is so taken with Mark, just that he can afford to be, and so he is.
When they’re alone, Mark and du Pont get on rather well. While others may be off-put by Mark’s silence, du Pont appears to appreciate it. Du Pont wants Mark to see him as a mentor. A teacher, a coach, a father. But because there is a latent dread that encompasses the entirety of Foxcatcher, we assume their relationship will soon sour. It does, for reasons I won’t explain, and after some time, du Pont invites Mark’s older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) to the estate to help craft the finest wrestling team that has ever lived.
Channing Tatum is an actor I’ve championed heavily, mostly because he has a lot working against him. He broke into the business based on good looks and epic dance moves. That led to a string of mediocre-to-bad performances in equally bland films. Despite this, Tatum has actively pushed himself to new and challenging material. Foxcatcher is his greatest challenge yet, and he seizes it. The brute physicality of Mark is something I expected from Tatum. That’s not meant to diminish the hard training Tatum had to endure to make the film, but I’m not surprised that he has the movements of a wrestler down perfectly. What’s more impressive about his work is the nuance he gives Mark; an ambiguity that is immensely compelling.
The Steve Carell we know does not appear in Foxcatcher. So immersed is the actor in John du Pont that Carell ceases to exist. Make-up helps with this, but it’s an attitude that makes Carell’s du Pont so inherently creepy. His movements are that of a plump snake, moving slowly, with purpose, plotting his next move, waiting to snap. It’s a performance consumed by a lifetime of dread and inadequacy. When du Pont walks into a room, you have no idea what to expect. Whether he strolls onto the practice mat with a pistol, or drunkenly ass-grabs with his team in a trophy room, there is a danger to everything Carell does in this film. It is a literal career transformation that I couldn’t take my eyes off of.
Having noted Tatum and Carell’s superb work, the real star of the film is Mark Ruffalo. And the bitch of it is, I can’t really tell you why. Simply put, Mark Ruffalo is just that good. There’s a subtlety to Ruffalo’s Dave Schultz that defies fancy adjectives. There’s nothing “flashy” about Ruffalo’s work here. He never raises his voice or speaks more than a few sentences at a time. He has no “hero” moments or tearful pleas of acceptance. Instead, Ruffalo creates a real man. A real and ordinary man who wants to please his suspicious wife (Sienna Miller, in a small but vital role), and do right by his conflicted brother. Physically, Ruffalo’s command of Dave is marvelous. Ruffalo, a wrestler in his youth, moves with effortlessness on the mat. His hunched-over stance and rapid movements are so precise and impressive. It may seem like Ruffalo is doing nothing as Dave, but believe me, he’s doing everything. The fact that you can’t necessarily tell makes all the difference.
Foxcatcher is an audaciously cold film. It’s photographed with a purposeful detachment, bathed in cold hues and natural light. It’s obvious that Miller isn’t concerned with blatant flash, but rather acute atmosphere. The performances speak to this as well. The heroes aren’t heroic and the villains aren’t purely evil. If redemption is possible, it isn’t attainted for us to see. Foxcatcher is a film that wants to be observed. It asks questions that it doesn’t answer, fractures relationships that aren’t repaired – it wants us to stare at it, asking why. Why do these people act the way they do? Why are they so stubborn, so mad, so real? Why, indeed. A-