Sports movies inevitably seem to fall into one of two categories: Firstly there are the against-all-odds, David vs. Goliath, overcoming adversity (racism, disability, poverty etc.) hopeful narratives, then there are the grueling look-how-much-of-a-toll-this-obsessesion-with-success-and-fame-does-to-the-human-spirit types of tragic narratives. Films like Cool Runnings, The Mighty Ducks or Jerry Maguire are firmly in the first camp, whereas Raging Bull, The Wrestler and Million Dollar Baby are in the second.
Bennett Miller has directed one of each in recent years; the first was Moneyball – the against-all-odds true story of how the baseball team the Oakland A’s, led by general manager Billy Beane, used a system of math’s and statistics to revolutionise how to beat the richer teams. His latest film Foxcatcher is firmly in the other camp of sports films.
Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is an Olympic wrestler trying to prove himself and escape the shadow of his more successful brother David (Mark Ruffalo). Stuck giving inspirational talks to school children and living alone with little money, he has to watch as his brother is in talks with wrestling associations for lucrative coaching deals. This all changes however when Mark is contacted by the elusive and enigmatic philanthropist John Du Pont (Steve Carrell) who offers to coach and train him on his private Foxcatcher estate.
At first Mark is grateful for the opportunity as John takes him under his wing and builds his public persona on talking tours and public appearances, yet things begin to sour when David agrees to come to Foxcatcher and work alongside the jealous Du Pont…
The sport of wrestling in America has a unique image problem, as there is the traditional Olympic style of wrestling as endurance sport, and then the spectacle of WWE and other entertainment/performance wrestling. I have no idea what the perception of the sport was 50 years ago, or during Ancient Greece, but the influence of WWE has definitely made the sport feel extremely camp and homoerotic. Foxcatcher is a film as much about homoeroticism and the male body, than it is about the sport of wrestling.
John Du Pont lives with his elderly hardhearted mother who is only interested in her collection of racing horses. She disapproves of his interest in wrestling and considers it “low” – an obvious reference to sexuality that is reinforced at one point in the film where John is trying to coach some of his team but can’t ‘perform’ when his mother comes to watch. The film treats wrestling as a form of hyper-masculine ballet, as the camera constantly lingers over close-up shots of muscles straining and Mark throwing himself around the floor practicing his moves. There is a lot of queer subtext to be enjoyed by audiences who are looking for it.
Miller, as in Moneyball, has given the film a rich post-rock soundtrack (provided in both films by the amazing This Will Destroy You). Yet the score is used much more sparingly in Foxcatcher. The sound mixing is incredibly minimal at times, keeping the sound of slapped skin and heavy feet during the fighting/practicing instead of music.
Carell is rightly gaining momentum for the Best Actor category at this year’s Oscars – he is utterly hypnotic and has a brilliant vocal delivery (Especially during a funny moment when teaching Mark to say “ornithologist philatelist philanthropist”). John Du Pont is portrayed as pensive yet detached, and obsessed with strength and domination, as highlighted by his love of wrestling but also through his attempts to buy military weapons… The performance is subtle and restrained and unlike anything Carell is done before (obviously).
Foxcatcher is a film about ambition, perseverance, jealousy and tension, and is a masterclass in subtext and non-verbal communication. A film that contrasts muscles with egos and strength with dominance, and ultimately the confined violence of the wrestling ring with the actual violence of the real word…