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Channing Tatum and Steve Carell's 'Foxcatcher' is a Good Movie Crying Out to be a Great One

By Caspar Salmon | Film | October 17, 2014 |

By Caspar Salmon | Film | October 17, 2014 |

Another day, another film about an older man taking a promising youngster under his wing with disturbing consequences. First Miles Teller gets all drumsticks-y up in J.K. Simmons’ face in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash and now in Foxcatcher, Channing Tatum plays the hurting young pup to Steve Carell’s twisted Mr Burns in a tracksuit. The result is a film that is often compelling because of its fine script and deft, committed performances, but struggles to become much more than the sum of its parts.

Foxcatcher is based on the true story of John du Pont (Carell), a multimillionaire who befriended and sponsored two professional wrestlers, Mark and Dave Schultz, in the late 80s. The film traces the story from a time when du Pont invites Mark (Tatum) to visit him in his country mansion, in order to help him train for the forthcoming world championships. Du Pont provides lodgings, food, money and training facilities: in return, he wants Mark to win him some medals. For Mark this represents a golden opportunity to escape the long shadow cast by his more successful brother (played by Mark Ruffalo).

As the story progresses, a strange bond is tied between du Pont and Mark, and at the point when Mark dyes his hair, starts snorting blow and massages du Pont while wearing tiny shorts, it looks like the film might enter Behind The Candelabra territory. Indeed, the movie hints at some sort of erotic tie between the two men without ever stating anything upfront. At this point Dave re-enters the scene, being brought on board to provide du Pont with further opportunities to win medals, and seemingly to protect his vulnerable brother. Du Pont’s motives are ever more creepy, his behaviour becomes increasingly territorial and possessive. The brothers are personally and professionally compromised by their financial ties to du Pont and it looks like things won’t end well.

The screenplay by Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye tells this story economically, painting a swift portrait of the tender, competitive relationship between the brothers before introducing the disrupting force that is du Pont. The script draws him as a strange character — at once a shy loner and a vain, puffed up brat playing games with people’s lives in order to build an edifice to himself. His bond with Mark is conveyed in a few, increasingly disturbing scenes, in which du Pont queasily grows more proprietorial over his charge, brainwashing him into rejecting his brother and seeing him, du Pont, as a father-friend-mentor figure.

Channing Tatum sensitively shows the emotional need at the heart of his character, the way a bruised and vulnerable young man could hunger for the sort of attention and comfort that a protector might bring. His Mark Schultz is always on the verge of a breakdown, constantly in need of love and support: he is intensely physical, fighting everything within reach — including himself on two occasions. Carell feasts on the role of du Pont, giving him a strange Dr Caligari kind of gait and an odd way of tripping over his words; his character is purse-mouthed and entirely humourless, with a totally eerie intensity. He is always intruding into other people’s space, making himself unwelcome but nevertheless imposing his creepy little presence because he’s the one with the money.

As the film is written, things can only get worse from the point that Dave Schultz joins his brother at du Pont’s training camp. The film is good on relations: it contrasts the true fraternal love that Dave has for his brother with the selfish demands that du Pont makes on Dave, and it shows how unsteady Dave feels about surrendering to the sort of control du Pont needs to exert over his stable in return for his money. Ruffalo plays this simply and well, giving his rote everyman character a strong moral compass and warm, open body language that clashes with Carell’s stiltedness.

All of this is told ably, and the story hits all its marks as it charts the rise and decline of the team, and the growing conflict between Dave and du Pont. The film is classical in its approach, using an unobtrusive approach in its storytelling: scenes of snowy landscape mark the passing of a season; clean, wide frames point at the alienating quality of du Pont’s estate; close-ups are briskly employed when the film delves into Mark’s psychological troubles. This means that the tale unfolds at a goodly pace, but it deprives the film of juice, of spirit. Where is the verve in Bennett Miller’s direction that would give this story a greater resonance? If it were filmed like this, Citizen Kane would just be the simple story of a lonely megalomaniac. Foxcatcher is crying out for bolder pictures, for imagery to mirror its story of the cruel effects of money, for a hint of indiscipline that would elevate the film into a fully-fledged parable for our times.

Caspar Salmon lives in London. You may follow him (and his London Film Festival tweets) on Twitter.