Overview: An unhinged multi-millionaire (Steve Carell) puts together an Olympic wrestling team and begins a strange and destructive relationship with the two star players (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo). Sony Pictures Classics; 2014; Rated R; 134 Minutes
Choppy and Sloppy: Director Bennett Miller claimed in an interview with Collider that his first cut of Foxcatcher was over four hours long and “very watchable.” The final theatrical cut is a full two hours shorter, but it still feels like an early draft. It’s apparent just from watching that this film used to be much longer — it’s like a person who lost a lot of weight but hasn’t bought smaller clothes yet. Every shot in the film feels like an arbitrary inclusion from that longer version, almost as if a computer program randomly pulled out two hours worth of footage and slapped credits on the end. This has the unfortunate side-effect of ruining many of Miller’s best compositions; rather than staying with certain images, we cut to different angles or closer inside the frame. This never gives us any new visual information, as the different angles are always the same distance from the subject and the close-ups are obviously just closer versions of the previous shot. It does nothing but break a scene’s flow and take away from some very elegant images.
Ciphers: The arbitrary nature of the editing makes the film lose a lot of characterization, which isn’t a great thing to happen to a character study. Carell’s John du Pont is a weirdo, but we learn very little about why, through either his actions or his backstory. We can surmise that he’s lonely and possibly mentally ill, but his final act in the film is completely mysterious. That might have worked if Carell had played him as more of an enigma, but it’s a very broad performance. Carell can’t even suppress his natural instinct for comic timing in places, turning du Pont into an almost Apatowian awkward manchild. Mark and Dave Schultz, the two brothers played by Tatum and Ruffalo respectively, are treated better in this regard, but the film’s structure lets them down as well. The first half is focused mostly on Mark, but he’s a blank slate for the second half. Dave takes center stage in that part, but it’s a wonky transition because we know little about him when he enters. Mark doesn’t get an ending, Dave doesn’t get a beginning, and du Pont doesn’t get a movie at all.
Brotherly Love: Though Carell’s performance is a weak link, Tatum and Ruffalo really shine. Tatum is unnerving, channeling a “dumb tough guy” persona into a stone-faced, dead-eyed wrestling obsessive. It’s not an act for Mark, there really isn’t anything else to him besides this sport. His few emotional outbursts are the best scenes in the film, because they seem to come from nowhere. We think we’ve seen this guy’s core, but then an actual layer reveals itself. Ruffalo, meanwhile, puts a lot of effort into his movement. Dave walks like an ape, with hunched shoulders and loosely hanging arms. Unlike Tatum, he wears his heart on his sleeve, particularly in scenes with the two of them together. Dave is the older brother, and he takes every opportunity to teach Mark something. That care and empathy just oozes out of Ruffalo, and it’s crushing to see Tatum refuse to let it in. These performances do most of the legwork with regard to the development of their characters. If only Miller had been able to pull something similarly nuanced out of Carell, maybe Foxcatcher would be the complex American epic that it’s crying out to be.
Wrap-Up: Foxcatcher feels like a rough cut, sacrificing both elegant visuals and coherent characters in the name of a manageable running time, but Tatum and Ruffalo still do great work.