First Look Review: Foxcatcher

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60%
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Mixed

Although it gets off to a slow start, the film is innovative in its direction and has a fabulous cast.

Based on a true story, Foxcatcher is an unsettling tale of brotherhood and betrayal from multi-award-winning director Bennett Miller. Through the evolution of the unlikely and ultimately disastrous friendship between eccentric wrestling enthusiast John Du Pont (Steve Carell) and two champion wrestlers, Miller fills in the gaps of this uncharted story and explores the inner torment of being second-best. Foxcatcher is a thought-provoking piece of cinema rare in its style which, although slow to get started, packs a core-shaking punch in its wonderfully unpredictable and well-executed conclusion.

As an Olympic gold medallist, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) feels unappreciated and undervalued as he meanders through his days dining on instant noodles in his isolated and unkempt home, earning pocket-money sized amounts for showing his medal to unimpressed schoolchildren. It is no surprise, therefore, that he jumps at the opportunity to join multi-millionaire John Du Pont in his project to create elite wrestling group Foxcatcher and, in doing so, to open the American eye to the hero that Mark believes he is. Having lived in the shadow of his brother and wrestling legend Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), Mark is determined to prove to the world that he too should be celebrated.

With a director known for bringing real-life stories to the big screen in a nuanced and innovative way in works such as Moneyball (2011) and Capote (2005) alongside such a star-studded cast, you’d expect Foxcatcher to be mind-blowing, but it was disappointing. The story is slow to get going and the stumbling awkwardness of many a dialogue scene between Mark and his mysterious benefactor is laborious to watch. While this slow pace is an intentional device which, in fairness, does help to build our understanding of certain characters, it struggles to get to the point and it is unclear why this is a story worth telling until the film nears its dramatic finale.

Another of Foxcatcher’s disappointments is the almost sacrilegious underuse of Vanessa Redgrave in her role as arguably one of the film’s most interesting characters, John Du Pont’s mother. John’s mother is immeasurably important to him; much of his life is dedicated to winning her approval. In effect, John suffers the same inferiority complex as Mark does over his brother’s success, the slight difference being that John is second place not to a brother and legendary sportsman, but, rather pitiably, to his mother’s horses. Redgrave’s presence in each of her few scenes is captivating and somehow both comical and upsetting simultaneously. By keeping her a minor character, Miller diminishes the potential of this backstory between John and his mother, an undercurrent which, if more greatly explored, enlightens us to the cause of John’s odd behaviour and seemingly unfathomable decisions; it is a lost opportunity.

Having said all that, once the film reaches its second half and the story takes a more sinister turn, things get a whole lot more exciting. The character of Mark who, for much of the first half, seems petulant and even a little dull, is given layers of complexity through Tatum’s moving performance. Much to my amazement, I really began to care about his successes and failures, his relationship with his brother and his inner turmoil. The biggest and most pleasant surprise, however, is Steve Carell’s fantastic execution of the mysterious John Du Pont. If you remember Carell for his amusing but fairly unremarkable roles in Bruce Almighty and The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, his immensely disconcerting performance as a psychologically-disturbed and complex villain will spark a major re-evaluation. In a potentially career-defining move, Carell takes on a new realm of acting and reveals a side that apparently no one besides Miller had anticipated.

Although I can’t help but feel that a good 100 of the films’ staggering 130 minutes could have been time better spent, the ending makes it all worthwhile. If you are unaware of the real story which Foxcatcher is based on – good. Keep it that way before you see the film and be prepared for a shock.

Foxcatcher (2014), directed by Bennett Miller, is released in the UK by Entertainment One on the 9th of January, Certificate 15.

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