Bennett Miller is a filmmaker who knows a good true story when he sees one. The director, who got his start with the documentary "The Cruise," and then directed the critically adored, Oscar-strewn films "Capote" and "Moneyball," both of which were based on real life accounts of very different events (the making of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" and then something involving math and baseball). For his latest film, "Foxcatcher," Miller once again dips into the reservoir of real life tragedy to come up with his dramatic inspiration.
"Foxcatcher" is based on a famous incident in 1996 when John Du Pont (played in the film by Steve Carell), a multimillionaire weirdo, murdered Mark Schultz (played by Mark Ruffalo), an Olympic wrestler, on his vast estate (named Foxcatcher). Du Pont fancied himself a wrestling fanatic (and amateur coach) and wanted to will a team to Olympic glory basically through money and weird encouragement. I remember this case at the time; it was strange there and watching a movie about it doesn't make it any less strange.
But is this is another gripping, Oscar-worthy translation of real life? Or should you stay at home and catch up on "Serial?" Read on to find out!
1.) It's Emotionally Detached
"Foxcatcher" is so painfully aloof that many times it feels like the first movie to be directed by an NSA surveillance drone. The camera just hovers outside of the action; emotionally you're always held at arms length (or further). There's no attempt to explain the situation in any way (more on that later) and it's hard to really get a grip on what is happening, why it is happening and (more importantly) why you should care.
2.) You Won't Recognize Steve Carell
Steve Carell, the movie star that looks like your dad, is totally unrecognizable as Du Pont, a weirdo with the curious neck stance of some kind of exotic bird and who talks in a strained, affected authority. This is the American aristocracy in full force: socially crippled and, most likely, inbred at some point. (There are definitely shades of Dandy from "American Horror Story: Freak Show" here.) Carell is cased in prosthetics, too, giving off the impression of an incredibly lifelike wax figure. It's eerie and haunting and altogether strange.
3.) There Are Lots of Fake Noses and Ears
And it's not just Carell who gets the Lon Chaney, Jr. treatment – most of the cast of "Foxcatcher" is outfitted in a fake nose or fake ears or a wicked combination of both. Sometimes it feels like you're not watching an Oscar-worthy prestige drama, but the Warren Beatty "Dick Tracy."
4.) Channing Tatum is the Best He's Ever Been
Channing Tatum has, over the past few years, proven, without a doubt, that he's not just a pretty face, with adventurous performances in Steven Soderbergh's "Haywire," "Magic Mike," and "Side Effects" and his hilarious work in "21 Jump Street" and "22 Jump Street." But as washed up Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (the brother of the Mark Ruffalo character) this is a next level performance. Everything about him is different – the way he walks, the way he talks (in short, guttural grunts), the way he interacts with others. This is a man who communicates physically. And who is uncomfortable in his own skin as du Pont is. In a weird way, there should have been little doubt that these two broken souls eventually found each other.
5.) It's S-L-O-W
"Foxcatcher" is "only" 130 minutes long, which in the grand scheme of Oscar movies, is pretty brisk. But it moves at such a glacial pace that you would be forgiven for nodding off (my girlfriend did). This movie is sleepy.
6.) There's Not A Lot of Psychological Insight...
In "Foxcatcher," nobody notices what a bizarre creep du Pont is, instead just cowing to his influence and money and power. But as David Edelstein mentions in his review for Vulture, the real DuPont was almost institutionalized and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia with active delusions. (This makes his violent outburst somewhat more understandable.) Even without a clinical analysis, the movie damnably stays away from any kind of psychological insight...
7.) ... Or Sexual Insight for That Matter
... Or sexual insight, for that matter. At the screening we attended, Miller said that he didn't want to really tell the audience anything about du Pont's frame of mind, but there is clearly some gay subtext and a wrestling scene that is shot like a rape sequence. It's Miller's way of having his cake and eating it too, and it's just as unsatisfying as that implies.
8.) Anthony Michael Hall Steals the Show
Yes, this movie features a finely tuned supporting turn by Anthony Michael Hall, as du Pont's premiere yes man (and drug dealer). It's a minor role but one that is filled quite nicely by Hall, an underrated performer that should be used more regularly.
9.) The Women Are Horribly Underwritten
The movie's gay vibe is certainly intensified by the near-total absence of female characters. There's Sienna Miller, in full-on "drab" mode, as Nancy Schultz, Dave's wife, who barely registers at all. And, somewhat more disappointingly, there's Vanessa Redgrave as Jean Liseter Austin du Pont, John's mother, who also lives on the sprawling estate. She has a couple of nice moments, but her performance doesn't even register in the same Ruby Dee-in-"American Gangster" way. Which is a huge shame. There's something more offensive about a movie that has female characters but doesn't engage with them, as opposed to a movie that is just free of women altogether.
10.) For a Story So Absurd It's Remarkably Humor-Free
The story of "Foxcatcher" is absurd – a bizarre millionaire has a fascination with wrestling and decides to coach a team out of his stuffy estate? Then he develops some kind of pseudo-sexual crush on a pair of brothers and ends up murdering one of them? That is crazy. And yet for the outlandishness of the actual story, "Foxcatcher" the movie is suffocating and straight-laced. It's a hermetically sealed drama, free of humor or vibrancy. It's also probably the most off-putting movie of 2014. Have fun!