Foxcatcher may not be the best name a film has ever had (the title for best title probably belongs to The Silence of the Lambs), but it’s certainly more appropriate than Breakcatcher, because the film hasn’t caught too many breaks since it rode into town on a wave of Oscar hype. It’s not doing particularly well with audiences nor critics; it isn’t appearing on enough year-end Top 10 lists. Its lead actor, Steve Carell, was supposed to be one of the Best Actor locks; now he’s on the outside looking in at the ROCKS (Redmayne, Oyelowo, Cumberbatch, Keaton, Spall). In two weeks Foxcatcher has gone from shoo-in to sideshow, and despite its AFI honors today, it’s very possibly going to be the first Bennett Miller-directed feature to miss a Best Picture nomination. Wha’ hah-ppen?
Foxcatcher was always going to be a strange sell, because it doesn’t have the uplifting triumph we expect from sports movies (e.g. Rocky, The Natural) or biopics (e.g. The King’s Speech, Argo). Nor does Miller provide the rooting interest that he marshalled from Truman Capote in Capote and Billy Beane in Moneyball. Still, that might have been part of the charm: this is the deep dark side of sports biopics that you normally don’t get to see, the opposite of a film like Miracle. Filmmakers know that under the right circumstances, unusual specificity can (as a contradiction) help a film to feel more universal. So why doesn’t it feel that way with Foxcatcher? And if it fails, does that preclude future “dark” biopics?
The makers of Foxcatcher had to make a crucial decision early: begin with the murder and backtrack, or tell the story chronologically? Both choices had pitfalls. Beginning with the murder, however obliquely (out of focus sirens, blood?), would have cast the film with both a certain menace and a deterministic quality (it’s all leading up to THIS) that would have taken away from its virtues as a character study and minimized its showcase of 1987 and 1988 that has nothing to do with homicide. Another little problem is that the murder took place in January of 1996, and to begin with the killing would have almost necessitated a title that said “Nine Years Earlier” – not a temporal gap to which the film wants to, or does, draw your attention.
Perhaps the filmmakers were relying on audiences, particularly art-house audiences, to know why John DuPont went to prison for the rest of his life. Yet films take on their own life while you’re watching them, and the first two hours of the chronologically arranged Foxcatcher can’t help but feel…a little lifeless, a bit inconsequential. Oddly, the film even underlines this problem by cutting to five or six seconds of blackness after Mark (Channing Tatum) moves away from the estate, encouraging us to ask: what if the film ended here? What did we just see, if not a prelude to a murder? Certainly, we saw some poorly adjusted people, but did that justify two hours of our time? Does it really matter that a creepy rich guy arranged for some competitive wrestlers to have a world-class facility? And then the last ten minutes bring yet more unsettling questions: why not tell us we’ve fast-forwarded eight years, unless the film means to imply that DuPont was reacting to just-concluded events?
The film tells us again and again, in case we’re not getting it, that the Schultz brothers, played well by Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, grew up desperate, moving around from place to place. If the script had been floating around Hollywood for a while, this emphasis suggests post-Occupy Wall Street concerns: here’s what happens when a couple of 99%ers try a shortcut to the 1%. Yet somehow it never quite jells into something for us to care about. I would have preferred a “thinly veiled” version of the same events, without DuPont and the Schultzes’ names, because then the film would have been free to mischaracterize John as a repressed, bitter homosexual and Mark as a glory-seeking egomaniac. The film is so respectful of what it doesn’t know (unlike the way Truman Capote treated his murderous subjects, unlike the bitter pathos that Philip Seymour Hoffman brought to his Manager Art Howe in Moneyball) that it winds up looking like one of those stiff portraits that DuPont has in his parlor.
Perhaps it’s not fair that while watching a film, one can forget details of the actual 20-year murder case that made the film possible, while it’s much harder to forget what one knows about the movie stars at the film’s center. If one of the film’s main themes is crass opportunism – expressed in varying ways by DuPont and the Schultzes – the film doesn’t seem to realize that Steve Carell and Channing Tatum are almost equally opportunistic. (One film that does realize that its stars are acting like its characters is Tropic Thunder.) Have we ever seen Steve Carell exhibit quirky, questionable management skills in a hitherto obscure part of Eastern Pennsylvania? His John DuPont is Michael Scott with more years, more freckles, more creepiness, and more proboscis (though critics have forgetten that this schnoz is still far smaller than that of Gru, the lead Carell plays in the Despicable Me films), and that’s fun, but it also reminds us that Carell needs this role in a way that he hasn’t really needed a role since he left The Daily Show to play, uh, Michael Scott. Foxcatcher is his Dead Poets Society, his Truman Show, his Greenberg (uh, that last one didn’t go well for Ben Stiller). As for Channing Tatum, the MTV Vanguard Award is nice, the “Channing in Your Tatum” song is, uh, also nice, but a long-lasting film career requires a few award seasons at a table with the rest of your nominated ensemble, and The Vow and Magic Mike, while big earners, weren’t going to get the job done. It’s not that actors shouldn’t attempt gravitas; if they didn’t, Hollywood would barely care about something besides tentpole franchises! It’s that this is a project about incuriously ambitious people played by uncuriously ambitious people…and that never stops being weird.
I make Foxcatcher and its awards chances sound worse than they really are. The film may yet cast a spell over that crucial demographic that thinks the 1980s was more important than it was. To be far, the movie gets credit for a certain sort of admirable restraint, but then, so did John DuPont before he shot Dave Schultz, during the decades in which he polluted the world, something that Foxcatcher cares about not a fig. Can Hollywood make a biopic about someone without giving the audience a real rooting interest? Based on Foxcatcher, not really. That’s one fox waiting for another filmmaker to catch.