Film review: Foxcatcher turns a sensational real-life story into an enthralling drama

Channing Tatum and Steve Carell (complete with enhanced honker)
Cert 15 | ★★★★☆
Many sports movies are about self-sufficiency, about succeeding under one’s own steam against the odds. Rarely are they about loneliness. But then, from the bleakly lit opening shots of Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) training in a deserted gym and slurping noodles alone at home, Foxcatcher marks itself out from the average sporting hero biopic.
Mark and his brother Dave were real-life freestyle wrestlers who made headlines for both winning golds at the 1984 Olympic Games. Their success drew the attention of eccentric philanthropist John du Pont, who aspired to train the US wrestling squad for the 1988 Games at his Foxcatcher Farm estate. The Schultzes were recruited to his team, but over time du Pont’s behaviour turned increasingly erratic, with tragic consequences.
Director Bennett Miller takes this sensational premise and runs with it. As we know from Capote, Miller has a feel for macabre detail: he infuses the estate with ominous touches, from shadowy halls and foggy gardens to shots of stuffed owls aplenty. Steve Carell, sporting a huge prosthetic honker, plays du Pont with relish as a sociopathic loner gradually losing the plot. Not that there’s much plot to be lost: Foxcatcher is a slow-burning psychological thriller that doesn’t so much swing between dramatic incidents as quiver with a constant, inarticulate tension.
Fans of Hitchcockian suspense-a-thons will find much to love here, but others may feel that the thriller element has been exaggerated at the expense of a richer movie. While it’s fun to watch Carell play against type, there’s a sense that in creating his character, the filmmakers have started with the ending and written backwards. The result is a standard-issue creepy villain, rather than a complex individual.
Mark is a more interesting customer. He’s diffident, naïve, and destructively jealous of his more stable brother (sensitively played by Mark Ruffalo). Tatum, a brilliant physical actor, conveys his pain with an array of mumbles, scowls and violent outbursts. Like du Pont, he has trouble communicating with others, but the question of why a highly decorated athlete leads so solitary a life is left tantalisingly hanging.
A better film would have fleshed out these themes, rather than become sidetracked by the story’s lurid climax. As it is, Foxcatcher falls short of the classic status that Miller is clearly gunning for. But it’s nonetheless a moody, enthralling drama, and a high-water mark in the careers of its three leads.

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