Director Benett Miller didn’t have to go as far as Cain and Abel to make a movie that has its roots in a deadly wrap of sibling jealousy and rivalry, albeit one-sided. Instead, he bases his movie on the real life story of brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, both Olympic wrestling gold medal winners. Not once does director Miller rely on melodrama or overt dramatics to tell his story of love, competition, winning, losing, and ultimately, tragedy. What “Foxcatcher” has, instead, is a simmering story that has boiling magma underground, that engrosses, rivets, and shocks.
Wrestler Dave and his younger brother Mark are wrestling champions, but it’s obvious that the elder brother is grounded, has settled down with his wife and two children, and is eking out a happy existence. Younger brother Mark, on the other hand, is troubled, lonely, and anguishes in the shadows of Dave. There’s this scene where Mark has his meals all alone in his house, and that moment grips you, as you dread how a life like his can be. There’s another scene, earlier, when Dave and Mark wrestle and grapple each other for practice. Mark unclenches his frustrations and anger at Dave, injuring him in the process. That’s director Miller and writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s strike to show Mark’s deep-rooted angst. In this cauldron, walks du Pont heir John du Pont, who gets Mark to join his wrestling team, Foxcatcher, on his sprawling estate in Pennsylvania. Mark asks brother Dave to join him, but the latter refuses, not wanting to disrupt his family life. Dave, however, is extremely supportive of his brother’s move, wanting nothing more his baby brother to succeed. Fate and du Pont, however, have other plans, and the brothers’ paths cross again, causing unimaginable upheaval and turmoil in their lives.
“Foxcatcher” wouldn’t have been the gripping drama it is, were it not for its first-rate cast. Channing Tatum as younger brother Mark is an amazing package of wired-up energy and anger. And as he goes from a vulnerable, immature sibling to someone who loses his path and focus in an opiate world of money and drugs, he’s fantastic. His eyes growl as his brother reappears in his life, seeming to take away everything that he thought belonged to him, including his standing and identity with du Pont. His self-destruction reaches peak point in a horrifying scene of bingeing and room wrecking. That’s breath-taking stuff.
There are two actors who’re simply unrecognizable in appearance or character here. The rakishly handsome Mark Ruffalo is mind-boggingly brilliant as elder brother Dave. Right from his first scene, when he comes in to wrestle with his brother, Mark isn’t a star. He’s the character, bent and built like a wrestler, pawing and gripping like a professional wrestler. His love for his younger brother, his instinctive protection mechanism, his maturity radiates out to you and Tatum. Note the scene where Tatum doesn’t open the door for him, while he’s come to the du Pont estate all thrilled to take the job up, and meet his brother. Ruffalo looks into the house, while the camera’s inside. But the glass can’t cover his hurt and mystified reaction to his brother’s behaviour. And another scene, where Mark discovers his brother in his room, completely destroyed and broken. His voice is strong and firm, loving and angry, frustrated yet sure that he won’t let his younger brother go down this path anymore.
The other actor is the one who’s character’s actions spin into motion a sequence of events that end in tragedy. Steve Carell is shockingly good as John du Pont, again unrecognizable in looks or countenance. Carell makes you shift in your seat in unease right from the first frame when he walks in. His voice is thin, his gait is unseemly, he’s simply unlikeable, though you can’t put your finger on why. And as you discover what makes du Pont the way he is – wanting to get out the shadows of his illustrious name and pursue something that he deeply loves, even if he can’t wrestle himself – Carell slowly but surely creeps you out. He’s astounding in the scene where he pretends to teach Foxcatcher students wrestling, as his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave, superbly imperious) is wheeled in. It’s a show stealer. He’s not sure what to do next, one eye on his mother, while he goes through the motions of being an expert, hoping to impress his mother, and failing spectacularly. In that scene, you almost want to reach out to him, understanding why he looks to Mark as a kindred soul.
The background score by Rob Simonsen and West Dylan Thordson is pitch perfect and in step with the movie’s mood and growing darkness. It’s superbly sombre and haunting, without you realizing it’s adding to the atmosphere.
“Foxcatcher” is a moving study of sibling relationships, jealousy, ambition, and makes you think of the choices people make. Especially when those choices flame the magma spouting into irreversible repercussions, burning the lives of those they love and care about.
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