Foxcatcher: Psych 101, Closed Notes

Director Bennett Miller’s latest film, Foxcatcher—starring Steve Carell in an against-type role already vigorously generating Oscar buzz—is billed as a psychological thriller.  Miller’s debut feature, Capote (which rightfully garnered its powerhouse lead, Philip Seymour Hoffman, an Academy trophy) was considered a biopic. In some respects, though, it would be more fitting if the two films switched genre labels. Capote‘s core wasn’t historical reportage but an exploration of one man’s duplicitous persona. And while Foxcatcher doesn’t tell anyone’s story in its entirety, there’s a patiently linear quality to the film—a resolute, straight-ahead gaze—characteristic of many movies grounded in real events. With Capote, Miller, Hoffman, and screenwriter Dan Futterman created an empathetic portrait of a certain breed of art-making monster: delusional in life, prophetic in art. Foxcatcher is based on the true story of brothers Dave and Mark Schulz—wrestlers who each won Olympic gold in 1984—and their dysfunctional entanglement with coach John DuPont.

Foxcatcher wants, in its way, to be the gym-rat version of Capote. It’s intended as a similarly chilling character study. And while the psychology on view here is certainly scary, it’s also rather straightforward, and this relative simplicity resists dramatization. If Truman made for a chattering Iago, the damaged men of Foxcatcher come off more like Bogarts: it’s their ambient darkness and not their driving mechanisms that come off as important.

The challenges of the material don’t end there. Where Capote‘s titular figure formed the film’s obvious center, Foxcatcher‘s story concerns three men equally. Miller seems unsure whose depths he’s most interested in plumbing. Carell’s DuPont is both the film’s catalyst and antagonist, yet it’s Channing Tatum’s Mark Schulz who provides the story’s heartbeat: charting the changes to Mark’s increasingly battered psyche is how we follow the story’s descent into hell. Add to these challenges the fact that world class wrestlers just don’t talk much, and you start to see how any writer-director combo might break a sweat wresting a film both compelling and convincing from all this.

All in all, Miller and Futterman—here writing with E. Max Frye—do an impressive job. They’ve turned out a tense, streamlined movie that handles its rubber-mat milieu expertly, displaying a deft ear for colloquial dialogue that says a lot while speaking little. Foxcatcher also boasts the lightest expositional touch I’ve seen in years. It refuses to clobber audiences over the head with wooden explanations of story-points, a refreshing departure from the downward-spiral narratives we’re used to seeing. Think of the M.O. of the overstuffed musical biopic: frame after frame of the heroin syringe, the foam at the mouth, wife fleeing with baby in a housedress, all of which could be handily replaced by a neon sign reading: “AND LIKE, THEN THINGS GOT BAD.”

It is nice to see a film treat us like adults, and one does want to rise to the challenge, but in a few key cases Foxcatcher‘s economy verges into lack of clarity. A certain amount of storytelling relies on pattern-recognition, after all. Without some repetition, we can’t tell the key isolated incidents from scenes just meant to show a trend. Dupont—in a perversely delightful scene—cajoles Mark into trying cocaine. The incident predicates a change in Mark’s coiffure (ascetic buzz cut gives way to bleached-blonde spikes), and a suggestion that Mark’s training regimen may be slackening (on the phone with Dave he says he’s “taking a little break”). The narrative arrows, though, don’t all point in the same direction: a few scenes later, he tells DuPont he’s planning two-a-days. Overall, Futterman and Frye’s dialogue is too elliptical to be clarifying, and Miller’s penchant for lingering on sparely beautiful frames can’t help us much if we don’t know what we’re looking for.

When DuPont’s affection for Mark gives way to an instance of abuse, the shock on Tatum’s face tells us the moment sets a new precedent. Yet Miller depends on the scene to illustrate the relationship’s sea change, to exemplify Dupont’s ultimate betrayal of Mark. It’s not enough. Time we should spend reveling in the taut contradictions of Mark’s predicament is wasted hastily catching up with the opaque psychological math.

In fact-checking this review, I came across IMDb’s logline. It describes John and Mark’s relationship as “a union that leads to unlikely circumstances as both men feel inferior to Mark’s revered brother, Dave.” This was news to me. Watching Foxcatcher you see Mark as psychologically shaky and DuPont as disarmingly odd, but if Dave emerges as top dog it’s strictly by default. He’s the only one with loving relationships or mental equilibrium in a film populated by emotional cripples. Retrospectively, it’s possible to see Foxcatcher as a masculine love triangle where real-life brothers and ill-fated father figures do-si-do. But the choreography’s a little off.

Once reaching its gruesome climax, the film grinds to a halt, as though it has nothing more to say. All that admirable streamlining winds-up revealing a paucity of lingering questions, and maybe that’s fine. It does make it hard, though, to not explain away the tragic ending—rather hollowly—with a shrugging: “Yeah . . . mental illness, right?” As for “Is it worth it?” the story and its circumstances leave you answering, simply, “no.” What else is there to take away?

I will say this: Foxcatcher haunted me. Viscerally if not intellectually. Seeing Carell’s performance is like walking through a cobweb, and I’ve had to keep pulling its sticky ghostliness off me. Maybe it takes a spare script for a tour-de-force to fully make its  terrifying, lingering impression. Traps only work if they’re invisible.

Grade: B+
the wrong tale for this screen team; told admirably but elliptically