Bennett Miller’s latest might also be his best. Foxcatcher joins the ranks of the 47-year-old director’s past greats: Moneyball and Capote. It’s the story of Mark and Dave Shultz, two of the most skilled wrestlers in the country, and their tumultuous relationship with millionaire John du Pont, played electrifyingly by an almost unrecognizable Steve Carrell.
Du Pont, heir to the du Pont fortune, comes to Mark Shultz (Channing Tatum) in hopes of making his Pennsylvania property the site of the USA Olympic team training facility. It starts off as a promising offer for Mark, as he received an offer via helicopter to live rent-free on du Pont’s property. Mark and du Pont quickly forge a friendship as du Pont throws gifts, money, and even drugs at Mark. There’s an especially remarkable scene where John introduces Mark to cocaine while flying on his helicopter to an event in du Pont’s honor.
As du Pont’s schizophrenic nature is slowly unveiled, the tension between Mark and du Pont escalates. Du Pont pushes rigid training regimens on the wrestlers and believes in his own delusion as coach, despite knowing close to nothing about wrestling. His love for guns is also cause for unease, as he even fires one in the training facility.
Perhaps most unsettling is the way Carrell carries du Pont. He never raises his voice, speaks in the off-putting dialect of an introvert, and lives alone on a massive estate, with only his mother and security team as company. It is a testament to Carrell’s portrayal that the character never feels like a caricature whose actions are difficult to predict.
As one can predict, though, the relationship between the eager Mark and unsettling du Pont eventually tears. At the request of du Pont, Mark recruits his brother Dave to join them at the millionaire’s Foxcatcher. It’s at this point that Mark begins to resent du Pont. Dave, played by the always fantastic Mark Ruffalo, is a wonderfully sane counter to John and brings a measured reality back to Foxcatcher Farms. It’s clear that Dave has always played a fatherly role with Mark, and once he arrives at Foxcatcher, Dave’s older brother instincts take over.
As the Olympic trials loom near, Mark’s anger gets the best of him and he begins to lag in his training. After a disastrous showing at trials, Dave takes over Mark’s training, distancing Mark from du Pont in the process. The psychotic du Pont, however, still thinks of Mark as his best friend and finds Dave at fault in their tension, rather than the belittling way du Pont treats Mark.
What Miller has created here is an insight into the perils of wealth and power paralleled by the competitive world of sports. Du Pont is unwilling to confront the truth that his money cannot buy him friends or respect. Instead, he blames others, eventually leading to a dramatic climax.
Despite its 134-minute run time, not once does any moment, masterfully shot by cinematographer Greg Fraser, feel unnecessary. In fact, what makes Foxcatcher exceptional is the pace Miller has created. He wraps the tension of his characters in a framework that is so meticulously patient, the stress is undeniably palpable.
Miller’s ability to pull authentic performances out of unlikely actors shines once again in Foxcatcher. In Moneyball, he turned Jonah Hill from Superbad stoner to an Oscar-nominated actor whose credits now include the work of Martin Scorcese and an upcoming film with Ethan and Joel Coen. There’s no doubt that working with Miller can similarly escalate Carrell’s career, with a performance that will surely be nominated by the Academy.
Miller, as well, is no stranger to awards season and will undoubtedly find himself in the eye of the race again this year. Not only is Foxcatcher superb, but also the competition Miller faces this year is unusually weak. Having won the director prize in Cannes this past May won’t hurt his chances, either.
Featured Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics