In the Coen Brothers’ 1991 feature Barton Fink the eponymous playwrite suffers an agonising stretch of writer’s block when he’s commissioned to pen a wrestling picture for a Hollywood studio. The joke within the movie is that the wrestling picture sub-genre has never really existed, though the Coens have fun inventing its imagined tropes as poor Barton grows increasingly frustrated at his lack of progress on the project. Foxcatcher quite accidentally manages to answer the question of why there have never been more wrestling pictures.
Quite simply if they were all as phenomenally loathsome as this film, who in the world would be going to see them anyway?
Having somehow amassed an abundance of mystifying praise, and rolling in on the wave of a misleading trailer which suggests some level of dramatic edge to proceedings, Foxcatcher arrives on the assumption that it ought to have some sway amid the contenders for statuette glory this awards season. Watching the damned thing, however, reveals what a fraudulent suggestion this is. After generating worthy commendations for both Capote and Moneyball, you’d be forgiven for thinking that director Bennett Miller was already something of a sure-thing, especially seeing as Foxcatcher sees him playing well within his comfort zone of true-life dramatisation. Yet somewhere along the road Miller seems to have taken a turning that leads so far up his own behind that nobody’s had the gall to tell him where he’s ended up.
The film concerns brothers Mark (Channing Tatum – the highest paid and least talented Hollywood A-lister presently in circulation) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo – the film’s only charm); both winners of Olympic gold medals for wrestling at the Los Angeles games of 1984. Three years later and their careers have somewhat flat-lined. All that’s set to change, however, when mega-rich oddball John Du Pont (Steve Carell) invites Mark to his expansive home and asks him to lead the Foxcatcher team to glory in first the World Championships and then the 1988 games in Seoul. Du Pont buys Mark for a song, but David is loath to uproot his family. Having been raised by David, Mark quickly forms a father/son relationship with the isolated Du Pont, a union of stilted dialogue in scenes of interminable length. It is only when David belatedly reverses his position and joins the team that cracks begin to appear in the relationship between the three men.
David is a thoughtful man of few words (a trait Ruffalo has brought to the screen comfortably before, and a role he fits into here with ease) and is the man portrayed most fondly by Miller’s film. The same cannot be said for his brother Mark, nor John Du Pont. Mark Schultz is depicted as nothing more than a hulking boob, ape-walking his way through the movie with his mouth open. It fits Tatum’s negligent acting range perfectly, but one feels it consistently fails to do the character justice. Mark follows Du Pont blindly as Miller bluntly riffs on his ‘daddy issues’ ad nauseam, while Du Pont is an even more stifled creation.
Carell, hampered by a distracting layer of latex and make-up, dials himself down for this ‘serious’ role to the point of somnambulism. The scenes between Carell and Tatum add up to little more than mumbled grunts and murmurs, the stilted dialogue sucked into the vacuum of awkward space that Miller pads his scenes with seemingly under the misguided notion that a slow film equals an intelligent one. Du Pont is reduced to a caricature with his own parental woes; in his case his deep-seeded sense of inadequacy in the eyes of his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave). One suspects Miller is trying to evoke a Daniel Plainview-esque portrait of a man hideously warped by wealth, but Carell is too inward, too suffocated to register on that scale. I’m all for subdued, naturalistic performances, but Carell and Tatum are positively comatose.
Aside from a false-start of kinetic filmmaking when David and Mark wordlessly train together, Miller’s film stalls in act one and never again feels as though it regains any urgency. Half an hour in and I was itching to walk out of the movie, something I’ve only ever been driven to once before (Madagascar in 2005). I’m not an impatient viewer. Hell, I enjoyed Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere and I frequently champion the wait-and-see atmospheric horror of Ti West’s The House Of The Devil, but Miller’s Foxcatcher is boring on a level I hitherto didn’t know was achievable in mainstream cinema. Foxcatcher looks good – director of photography Greig Fraser is more or less the only saving grace aside from Ruffalo – but that’s shallow compensation for a film which manages to make as little as it possibly can out of a potentially very interesting psychological ménage a trois. And sports fans looking for action? Forget about it. Foxcatcher barely raises a sweat.
There are fleeting moments when you suspect Miller’s playing the long game and all this waiting is going to pay off, and yes, briefly at the beginning of the third act it feels as though we’re starting to get somewhere as tensions between the three leads marginally intensify, yet this too turns out to be too much to hope for. Those who know what happened between these three men will perhaps appreciate Miller’s sensation-free approach to the violent confrontation to come; those in the dark will simply fail to care. There’s precious little reward for the gargantuan effort involved in trying to engage in Foxcatcher. Ruffalo’s David is very much the third man here, while Mark and Du Pont come off simply as dullards, skulking about a luxury estate, occasionally in their singlets.
So forget the applause and positive critical reception, and certainly do yourself a favour and forget any notions you’ve had that this might be a rewarding way to spend 2 hours. It’s utterly, utterly horrendous. Rote observations gilded repeatedly, the end result a bloated, offensively tedious waste of time. I’d have gotten more out of a blank fucking screen. As I shuffled out of the cinema, hat in hand and actually angry, I listened to the collective groans and complaints of the other poor suckers lured into this dogshit of a movie. A man to his wife: “Can I ask you something?” Her reply, “Yes, dear?” Then his question, “Was that awful?” “Yes, it was,” she said to him.
Yes, it was. Fuck off, Foxcatcher.